Generalized Anxiety Disorder During the Holidays
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by intense, chronic worrying. One of the difficulties with understanding GAD is understanding the difference between normal worrying and excessive worrying. Everyone worries. We worry about finances, about health, about our relationships, about our children, about our jobs. But when you have generalized anxiety disorder, your worrying is more intense and more frequent and interferes with your ability to function.
The Difference Between Normal Worry and GAD
Suppose you heard a rumor that there were going to be lay-offs at your job. There was nothing definite, nothing that came from management, just rumors. In this case, anyone would worry. Mary, who heard the rumors, started planning what to do, she talked with husband that evening and together they discussed how the family would survive without Mary's paycheck. Mary slept fitfully that night, concerned about the future, but by morning, Mary had decided to wait and see what happened at work and to start looking for a job, just in case. She had breakfast, helped her children get off to school and headed out the door to work.
Sandy also heard the rumors. Sandy immediately started worrying about her future. She fretted about how the family would suffer with the loss of income. That night, she was in tears when talking with her husband. He told her not to worry, they would be fine, but she worried anyway. She felt nauseous and skipped dinner. She did not sleep, staying up all night worrying about what would happen. In the morning, she gave her children breakfast but still couldn't eat, her stomach was in knots, her head was pounding and she was shaking. She could not think of anything except the possible lay-offs at work. She felt so sick, she wasn't even sure she could go in to work.
Most people, when confronted with a negative situation, will worry for a brief amount of time. They will match their worry with the reality of the situation, as Mary did. People with GAD worry so significantly, it interferes with their ability to sleep, to eat, to function. Even though they know their worrying is excessive, they feel they are unable to control the worry.
The Holidays and Stress
People with GAD don't worry only during stressful situations. They worry all the time, even when things are going well. But added stress can aggravate GAD symptoms. And the holiday season tends to be stressful. The extra activities and the added expenses can trigger GAD symptoms, causing you to feel tense, on edge and irritable. You may have trouble sleeping or have a hard time focusing. While other people are planning for the festivities and seem to be enjoying the season, you are worrying about everything that could possibly go wrong. You know your thoughts are unreasonable but no matter how much you try to relax and enjoy yourself, you just end up worrying more. Instead of having fun and enjoying this special time of year, you feel sick, tired and are sure disaster is just around the corner.
Tips to Help You Manage GAD
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America offers the following tips for reducing your anxiety levels:
Simplify your plans. If you normally worry about the details, then think of ways you can reduce the number of details. For example, if you are having guests over, can you simplify by asking guests to bring a covered dish, ordering pre-cooked foods or reducing the number of guests? If you worry about whether people on your guest list will appreciate and like their gift, can you purchase gift cards? Simplifying is one way to reduce the number of stressful triggers.
Enlist support. Talk with your friends and family. Let them know how you are feeling and that this time of year is particularly hard on you. Let them know how they can help. (See last week's post: Talking to Your Family about Your Anxiety Disorder)
Set aside a specific time each day to worry. You might choose to worry between 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM. Each time something comes up that you are worrying about, write it down and tell yourself you will think about it later. At 7:00 PM, find a quiet space where you can review your list and spend one hour worrying about the things on the list. Use this time to write down one solution (at least) for each item on your list. Your solution can be to put off the worry until after the holiday. Once your hour is up, go back to your normal activities.
Decide if your negative thoughts are based in reality or fantasy. Many people with GAD will immediately worry about "worse case scenarios" even though they may have a miniscule change of happening. For example, you read an article on cancer and begin to worry you have cancer, even though there is no family history of cancer and you have no symptoms. If you decide your negative thoughts and worries are based on fears rather than truths, write them down and physically throw them away as you tell yourself you will focus on thoughts that are based on the reality of the situation instead.
Schedule 15 to 30 minutes of relaxation into your day. I know, it's the holidays, you barely have enough time to get everything done now, you couldn't possibly find an extra 15 or 30 minutes. You'd be surprised, however, to see that if you take this time, you will be more effective and productive the rest of the day. During this time, practice relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing techniques.
Watch your diet. Food choices may not cause anxiety, but eating a well-balanced diet can help you to reduce your anxiety levels. Avoid caffeinated drinks as these can trigger anxiety.
Take care of yourself. Besides your diet, make sure you get to bed on time and either add exercise to your day or increase your exercise during stressful times.
Use deep breathing. Many people find that practicing deep breathing on a daily basis will lower overall anxiety but this technique also helps squash acute anxiety. If you find yourself worrying incessantly, take five minutes and breath deeply. You will feel yourself become less anxious.
Throughout this article we talked about ways to reduce stress, but you must also accept that stress is a part of every day life. You can reduce stress but you cannot eliminate it. Using the techniques above can help you manage the stress during the holiday season and year round.
More information on anxiety during the holidays:
"Getting a grip on anxieties during the holidays", 2002, Mary Beth Reilly, University of Michigan
"How to Stop Worrying", 2010, May, Melinda Smith, M.A., Helpguide.org
"Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress", Date Unknown, Author Unknown, The Anxiety Disorders Association of America