Dr Eddie Murphy: When should you start to worry... about worrying?

Advice column with Operation Transformation's Dr Eddie Murphy

Dr Eddie Murphy: When should you start to worry... about worrying?

When should you start to worry about your anxiety?

Worry is a normal and universal human experience. All of us worry from time to time, especially during periods of increased stress or uncertainty in our lives.

For most people, this period of worry is relatively short-lived and things return back to normal once the stressful situation has passed.

Yet for too many people, this intense worry and the anxiety that comes with it doesn’t go away. It causes intense distress and interferes with day to day life. This experience is termed Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD.

What is worry?

Worry typically consists of a series of distressing thoughts about possible negative future events. Worries often come in the form of “what if” questions. For people with GAD, these questions can lead to a worry ‘spiral’: “Why is my partner late coming home from work? What if something has happened to him? What if he’s been in an accident? What if he is seriously injured and can’t call for help? What if he dies before he gets proper medical attention?”

Some experts believe that worrying is really an attempt to problem-solve or to gain control over uncertain future events.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Approximately 4% of the population, are affected by Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

People with this condition suffer from chronic, excessive and uncontrollable worry about a number of different events and activities in their daily lives.

This worry happens more days than not for at least six months, and is associated with a number of uncomfortable physical symptoms, including sleep problems, fatigue, restlessness, severe muscle tension, and irritability.

The excessive worry and associated anxiety cause considerable distress and interferes with the person’s ability to manage day to day life.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder typically begins in late adolescence or early adulthood, although many people with GAD report that they have been worriers since childhood.

Approximately twice as many women as men are affected by GAD.

GAD is also more common in the elderly. Generalized Anxiety Disorder tends to be chronic, although it may worsen or intensify during times of stress. People with generalized anxiety disorder are prone to developing other anxiety and mood problems including depression.

How is worry in GAD different from ‘normal worry’?

People with GAD, worry about the same things as the rest of us: work/school, finances, relationships, health and wellbeing of friends and family or the self, community/world affairs, and more ‘minor’ matters, like being on time for appointments and attending to daily chores or errands.

However, worry in GAD differs from ‘normal’ worry in its breadth, frequency, intensity and controllability.

People with GAD tend to worry about a greater variety of topics than people without GAD, and the focus of worry in GAD can shift over time depending on the person’s life experiences.

However, many people with GAD will say that they worry about ‘everything’. People with GAD tend to worry most days, for a significant portion of the day.

It is not uncommon for people with GAD to report that they are worrying for almost all of their waking hours. They often find it extremely difficult to concentrate or ‘live in the moment’ because of all of the worries swirling around in their heads.

People with GAD also find that their worry is difficult to control — once they have started worrying about something, they find it difficult to let go and turn their attention to other tasks.

Worry in GAD tends to be ‘exaggerated’, or out of proportion to the actual situation — that is, people with GAD worry more than other people would in the same situation.

Worry in GAD is more often associated with physical symptoms than normal worry. In addition to the physical symptoms described above, some people with GAD report feeling shaky or twitchy, muscle soreness, sweating, dry mouth, nausea, diarrhoea, jumpiness, trouble swallowing, or a ‘lump in the throat’. The rates of stress-related conditions such as recurrent tension headaches and irritable bowel syndrome are generally higher in people with GAD than in the rest of the population.

Because people with GAD have so many physical symptoms associated with their worries, they very often seek out medical advice about these ailments, rather than seeking help for their worrying. Many times the underlying worry that drives these symptoms goes unrecognized.

What about treatment for GAD?

The good news is that effective treatments for GAD do exist. Both pharmacological and psychological treatments have been shown to be helpful. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has also been shown to be an effective treatment for GAD.

Online CBT for GAD is available at www.stratishealthcare.ie. This involves learning more about your particular worry triggers, worry topics and about the factors that serve to keep worry going (eg, positive beliefs about worry, difficulty tolerating uncertainty in life). The strategies taught in CBT help clients to ‘short circuit’ the worry process and invest their energy in more effective coping strategies.

Because many people with GAD have been worrying excessively for years, they often think that they are just ‘worriers’ and that their worry is just part of their personality that cannot be changed. For this reason, many continue to suffer needlessly for years before getting an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. If you or someone you know has symptoms of GAD, encourage them to get an assessment from a qualified mental health professional and start treatment straight away.

A lifetime of freedom awaits. Go for it!

Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to www.facebook.com/ dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist

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