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Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Last updated Thursday, 16 July 2009
By Dr Sallee McLaren, Clinical Psychologist

Zoe was 27 years of age and she had been a persistent worrier for several years.  Zoe remembered that worrying had become a noticeable problem not long after she lost her job.  She often struggled to fall asleep because her worry was persistent and difficult to shake off.  Almost any concern could become a major preoccupation.  Sometimes she would go to bed and ask herself what it was that she ought to worry about tonight – there must be something!  Zoe would become tense and stressed while searching for a topic.  As soon as Zoe had thought of a topic to ruminate upon, she could then go on for hours anticipating the worse possible scenarios. 

She worried nearly every day and felt distressed about how much time and energy was spent going over and over issues in her mind.  It was time to get help!

What does it look like? (Symptoms)

  • Persistent anxiety and worry that occurs on most days for at least six months
  • The anxiety focus does not have a specific target and skips from one issue to another
  • Usually the person feels distressed by the extent of their worrying and finds it hard to switch off their anxious thoughts
  • Muscle tension
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Problems with focus and concentration

How can it cause a problem in my life?

Often people become worn out, tired and preoccupied with worrying concerns.  Over time, it is common for the person to become hyper-vigilant.  This is where threat is perceived, usually when it is not actually present.  In this way, many ordinary occurrences are seen as threatening and catastrophic and become material to ruminate upon.

Who else experiences it?

It is thought that about 5% of the population experience generalized anxiety.  Females tend to be affected more than men, with some research showing a ratio as high as 2 to 1. Many more people experience symptoms of generalized anxiety yet are never formally diagnosed.

What can I do about it? How can I manage it?

Some anxiety is normal and helpful.  It tells you when you have to be alert to finding a solution to a new problem.  We all get somewhat anxious in new situations, but that anxiety should be brief, transient and the intensity ought to be related to the severity of the situation.  By implication there should be only a mild reaction when the situation is not severe.

If you want generalised anxiety to stop being a problem for you, the most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to stop worrying. This may seem easier said than done but your worrying thoughts are an avoidance behaviour that is keeping your anxiety going.  It may not feel possible: you probably feel like you have to worry or else things will get worse.  The reason that worrying is avoidance behaviour is that you are actually attempting to anticipate, plan and then avoid every imaginable catastrophic scenario that has leapt to mind.

Some people find it hard to stop worrying, feeling powerless to stop their thoughts.  It is easy to think that your thoughts just take over.  In fact, humans are quite able to control what thoughts we give our conscious attention to: as strange as it sounds, you can actually decide that you will cease worrying.  This may be extremely difficult at first, but with persistence, practice and perhaps guidance from a trained professional, it will become easier:
  1. For example, whenever there is a worrying thought about to break through into your conscious brain, you will notice some anxiety symptoms in your body that accompany the worrying thought, such as muscle tension, butterflies, agitation, shortness of breath or an increased heart rate.  These symptoms occur simultaneously with the worrying thought because the content is in some way distressing.
  2. Using these physical symptoms as an indicator of thoughts to come, you can choose to simply dismiss the worrying thought and pay it absolutely no attention.  Do not question it, do not challenge it, just don’t have it!  Instead, turn your attention 100% onto a constructive activity, such as reading, doing a crossword, going for a run, doing sit-ups, having a conversation, doing a work task, writing a poem, doing some mental mathematics, or listening to the radio.  Every time your brain wants to bring up the worrying thought you choose to dismiss it.   

Outlook: what can I expect?

Speed of recovery varies from person to person, however you will be making great strides towards managing your anxiety if you are able to stop the avoidance worrying.  The earlier you can reduce your amount of worry, the easier it will become and the better your outlook will be. Remember, help and support is available, and with practice and encouragement you can manage your level of worry and anxiety like many others have done!

What resources are available for help?

  • Your main resource is yourself!  It may feel crucially important to worry about things, but remember this is often a bad habit set off through a stressful life event.  Learning good techniques and persevering with them will help you to reduce your worrying.
  • Many people find it extremely helpful to speak to a trained professional who can assist them and give them insight   and  techniques for dealing with worry and anxiety. (See below for contacts).
  • Prescription medication may be an option. However, reducing symptoms by using the techniques outlined above is highly recommended as medications may mask rather than cure symptoms—and symptoms are likely to return when medication is ceased. There may also be side-effects from medication including diminishing your capacity to exert control over anxiety impulses.

McLaren (2004). Don't Panic You Can Overcome Anxiety Without Drugs.

Support Groups
ADAVIC Support Groups
Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria (Ph: 9886 9377)

See ADAVIC's Find Therapist feature
Visit the Australian Psychological Association (APS) website

This information was provided by Dr Sallee McLaren, Clinical Psychologist & Author.
Her book ‘Don’t Panic you can overcome anxiety without drugs’ is available from ADAVIC.

She can be contacted via:
Phone: (03) 9416 1621
Consulting Address: 100 Leicester Street, FITZROY VIC 3065

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