Generalised Anxiety Disorder or GAD, along with other mental illnesses, is endlessly discussed but rarely explained on a personal level. We are presented with endless statistics; told umpteen times that the stigma must be broken. But the fact is that the stigma does still remain, anxiety is still passed off by many as people simply being ‘neurotic’ or paranoid, and until everyone can understand how it feels, we’ve hit a bit of a brick wall when it comes to tackling it. Symptoms are varied and complicated, but particularly damaging is the unwillingness or inability to talk about what’s happening. For many, the disorder remains undiagnosed and undiscussed.
GAD refers to an excessive anxiety about nothing in particular, occurring more days than not, for months at a time. This is opposed to disorders such as anorexia or social anxiety, which relate to a specific fear or concern. The most unnerving element of GAD is the inability to answer the question, “but why are you so anxious?”. If the question could be answered, the problem could be solved. The issue with GAD is that more often than not there is no clear reason for it; the underlying cause is something which needs to be investigated in order to understand and to fix it, and blind panic is not exactly the ideal state in which to do this.
Symptoms of GAD manifest themselves both mentally and physically. Disrupted or disturbed sleep is common, as well as a tight chest, muscle tension, breathlessness and restlessness ; less visible symptoms include feelings of isolation and detachment, unease, loneliness, instability, and a sense that something very bad is always just around the corner. These symptoms are relentless and exhausting.
Panic attacks are the culmination of these symptoms, a cathartic but dangerous and undeniably grim mode of release. Heart palpitations, sweating, hyperventilation, a choking sensation or feeling of being smothered, dizziness and ringing in the ears are all possible and all traumatic. Having a panic attack is a cycle of bewildering symptoms that only exacerbate the trigger feeling of acute anxiety, and are difficult to break out of.
So, what to do when your pal is having a panic attack? First off, don’t smother them with hugs. When you’re overheating and feel like you can’t breathe, cuddles are not what you need. What you do need is the reassurance that you’re not alone. Keep some kind of contact – hand on the arm or the shoulder, for example – and keep talking and asking them to breathe. It also helps to ask them to look you in the eye. Panic attacks can come with a sudden feeling of being horribly isolated and alone, or even ashamed, so making eye contact is reassuring and helps victims break out of the cycle.
There is no common or miracle cure for GAD. Beta blockers are commonly used and are effective in relieving symptoms, but can also become psychologically addictive and have noticeable withdrawal symptoms. Beta-blockers have advantages in that by relieving the symptoms of anxiety, they open a window of opportunity to figure out the root of the problem, but it’s a mistake to think that they can solve it.
Getting to the bottom of anxiety is a lengthy and grisly process. Surveys have shown that those who suffer from the disorder often shy away from addressing it, and it could well be because a lot of people, both those who suffer from anxiety and those who don’t, simply don’t recognise it when they see it. Anxiety manifests itself in irrational or erratic behaviour that some see as tiresome and irritating. A lack of self-worth or paranoia can cause the sufferer to be unwilling to explain their situation to anyone, friend or doctor. Everyone needs to understand what anxiety does and what it leads to in order to comprehend and deal with it.