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Dr. Jensen and Dr. Furey Tackle Generalized Anxiety Disorder

May 20 2022

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Melissa Jensen, PhD, (pictured above, left) and Colleen Furey, PsyD, (pictured above, right) both clinical psychologists, break down generalized anxiety disorder, its symptoms, how it is diagnosed and what you can do to find relief from anxiety symptoms.

What is generalized anxiety disorder and what are its symptoms?

Dr. Jensen: General anxiety disorder (GAD) is a persistent anxiety or worry about multiple things, not just one thing. It impacts an individual’s life, is not substance-related (such as the jitteriness we may experience when having too much coffee) and it’s difficult to control.

When assessing a patient for GAD, clinical professionals determine if the anxiety and worry are accompanied by at least three of the following physical or cognitive symptoms in adults and one in children:

  • A restless, keyed-up feeling
  • Feeling easily fatigued
  • Experiencing insomnia or other sleep difficulties
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension

Dr. Furey: Because they don’t have the insight or language to describe what they are feeling, children may demonstrate GAD through behavior. Instead of saying “I feel restless,” for example, they can have physical symptoms such as stomach aches, behavioral symptoms such as defiance or tantrums, or feelings such as irritability or sadness.  

Are there other types of conditions when we talk about anxiety?

Dr. Furey: There are several conditions that fall under the umbrella of anxiety, including obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

How is GAD diagnosed? And what are the reasons for someone to get diagnosed?

Dr. Furey: GAD is diagnosed by a clinician. It does not require specific lab testing for a diagnosis, but patients may receive medical tests as part of a larger exam.

If anxiety is getting in your way and impairing your life, that’s a sign to seek help. While anxiety serves us in some ways and helps us function, we become most concerned when it lasts a long time and impairs your life. Say, for example, as a resident of Cincinnati, you are very anxious about sharks. You are unlikely to encounter sharks in your day-to-day life, and thus your anxiety may not significantly impact your functioning. However, if you work at the aquarium, and your fear of sharks is impairing your ability to do your job, that’s a prompt to seek help.

Does GAD impact other mental health conditions, such as depression?

Dr. Furey: Yes, typically you are more likely to have GAD if you have ADHD, depression or a trauma history, and vice versa.

Is there a population GAD affects more than others?

Dr. Jensen: Yes, people with chronic illness and those from traditionally marginalized groups are more likely to have GAD, as are people who have issues related to social determinants of health, such as financial worries or living in family groups that have high levels of stress.

Women are more likely to have GAD. Some of that may stem from the fact that women are more comfortable with reporting their symptoms, but there are elements of being female that create additional internal distress.

What are the daily functions GAD can affect or disrupt?

Dr. Furey: GAD can affect speech, sleep, schoolwork, jobs, appetiteas well as relationships. It can also include tendency to abuse substances and frustration, tolerance or irritability.

What makes GAD different from what someone might consider naturally occurring anxious feelings?

Dr. Jensen: The difference is level of impairment that it causes to a person’s ability to live their life comfortably.

How does this kind of anxiety feel and show itself in a person’s physical being?

Dr. Furey: GAD is more integrated into someone’s day-to-day life. It’s not episodic, like a panic attack. It’s more like your brain’s normal state of being. People with GAD may experience physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, diarrhea and an upset stomach.

What are things people can do to help stop anxious feelings when they creep in?

Dr. Jensen: We work on teaching people that their body is having a natural reaction to a heightened state of anxiety. There are techniques they can use to try to prove to the brain that they are safe and OK, such as using calm or diaphragmatic breathing and muscle relaxation. If you’re experiencing restlessness, something physical like exercise, taking a walk or doing yoga can help. Calming the body often calms the mind. The part of the brain that does the critical thinking then takes control back and helps you work through the anxiety in a healthier way.

Dr. Furey: There are phone apps available to help guide you through deep breathing and meditation. If these techniques are not helping, then it’s time to think about seeking professional intervention.

Learn more about the behavioral and mental health services we offer at Mercy Health.

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