by Dr. Sandra Hamilton | Featured Contributor
Most of us say we are “stressed” as often as we say we are hungry; but how often do we confuse feeling stressed with a health condition that may sabotage our functioning? Our ability to adapt to rising stress levels can become so familiar to our existence, that what we call “stress” may actually be a mental health syndrome known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Nine percent of Americans will be diagnosed with GAD within their lifetime, and well over half of them will be female and approximately thirty years of age.
The hallmark symptoms of GAD are excessive worries that are plentiful, frequent, and disproportionate to the reality of the individual’s circumstances. Other common symptoms include muscle tension, nervousness, and feeling “keyed up” or unable to relax. Not surprisingly, the toll of excessive worrying may disrupt sleep and concentration, lead to fatigue or irritable mood, and even manifest as physical symptoms such as nausea or a headache.
Sound familiar? Consider Laura’s scenario:
Laura had been called a “worry wart” as long as she could remember. She worried about the usual demands of life — her job, relationships, and finances. Laura also focused on less consequential issues, such as an exchange she had with a cashier at the grocery store, or what might happen when she met up with friends after work.
When she was promoted to a more challenging position in her organization, Laura found herself constantly worrying about her new job responsibilities, as well as other less urgent issues such as wardrobe choices and the weather forecast. She had trouble getting to sleep as she reviewed what she needed to do the next day, thought about events she heard about on the news, and remembered the conversations she had with people during the day.
Laura’s unremitting apprehension began to wear on her body. She noticed she felt nauseated before she left for work, and her neck and shoulders began to feel tense most of the time. As a result of her lack of sleep, she felt fatigued and scattered in her thinking. Laura began to feel mildly depressed as she noticed that the clear–headed and efficient behaviors that led to her promotion were no longer a natural part of her functioning.
Laura’s symptoms are characteristic of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). On their own, any of Laura’s symptoms would be considered harmless; but when symptoms combine and endure over several months, they are likely to add up to a mental health issue. What is insidious about GAD is that many of the signs appear unrelated to anxiety because they are diverse and nonspecific. It would be easy to erroneously conclude that insomnia, headaches, and excessive worrying point to nothing more than a need for a vacation.
What you can do:
When we are under stress, we can lose track of ourselves and ignore disruptive thoughts, feelings, and physical complaints. Continually adapting without examining our daily experience will likely lead to a need for medical and psychological assistance.
Get it on paper.
People tend to ignore or forget signs and symptoms of anxiety during a stressful time. If you are going through a challenging phase of your life, keep a log of your physical and emotional reactions to stress. Consistently tracking any changes in your mind and body is the most effective way to assess how your current situation is affecting you.
Seek professional help.
If your worries and other symptoms persist for at least six months, see your physician to rule out a medical explanation for your condition. If you are given a clean bill of health, pursue the help of a qualified mental health professional.
We all have worries, and some days and weeks are worse than others, but life is too short to unknowingly suffer. The chronic worry, irritability and other symptoms of GAD that we attribute to stress can unwittingly become our “new normal” while taking their toll on our relationships and work performance. When worries control our behavior and rob us of life’s pleasures, it’s time to get some help and put the “fun” back into functioning.
Dr. Sandra Hamilton
While taking pre-med classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I became so distracted by psychology courses that I changed my major to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. My contributions to She Owns It are drawn from the professional perspective of a clinical psychologist, as well as the personal point of view of a single working mother and entrepreneur. I have maintained an independent psychology practice for over 20 years, taught as an adjunct assistant professor for over a decade, and somehow managed to survive raising two spirited daughters.
My expertise is grounded in years of working with individuals, couples, and families who have worked their way through catastrophic experiences as well as the inevitable demands of adult life. I admire their tenacity each time they schedule another session in the face of painful insights and difficult feelings.
Therapy is not a haircut. It’s not a quick fix, and you don’t always feel better when you leave.