Senior Living Q & A: Do I have anxiety disorder?

Q. My husband says I worry too much, but there are so many negative things going on that I am concerned about. What is the difference between normal worrying and abnormal worrying?

It's natural to worry during stressful times. But some people feel tense and anxious day after day, even when there is little to worry about. When this lasts for six months or longer, it may be generalized anxiety disorder. This illness affects nearly seven million Americans. Unfortunately, many people don't know they have it. So they can miss out on treatments that lead to a better, happier life.

The main symptom is a constant and exaggerated sense of tension and anxiety. You may not be able to pinpoint a reason why you feel tense. Or you may worry too much about ordinary matters, such as bills, relationships or your health. All this worrying can interfere with your sleep and your ability to think straight. You may also feel irritable due to poor sleep or the illness itself.

Most people spend some time worrying about their troubles, whether money, job demands or changing relationships. What sets generalized anxiety disorder apart is the feeling that you can't stop worrying. You may find it impossible to relax, even when you're doing something you enjoy.

There's no lab test for generalized anxiety disorder, so the diagnosis is made based on your description of your symptoms. It's important to be specific when telling your doctor about your anxiety. What do you worry about? How often? Does your anxiety interfere with any activities?

One kind of therapy is very effective in treating anxiety. It's called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. A counselor helps you identify your negative thoughts and actions. CBT may include homework, such as writing down the thoughts that lead to excess worry. You will also learn calming strategies. People can feel better in three to four months. A combination of medicine and CBT often works best.

Some antidepressant drugs work well to lower anxiety. Be sure to discuss the pros and cons of medications with your doctor.

You can support your treatment for generalized anxiety disorder by making a few simple changes in your habits. Avoid caffeine and even some cold medicines, which can boost anxiety symptoms. Try to get enough rest, and eat healthy foods. Try relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation. Massage or listening to music helps some people.

And be sure to exercise. There's evidence that moderate physical activity can have a calming effect.

Start by discussing your anxiety with your family doctor. He or she can rule out other illnesses that can mimic generalized anxiety disorder. If an anxiety disorder seems likely, you'll probably be sent to a mental health professional. This specialist should have training in psychotherapy. It's important to choose someone you're comfortable with to guide your progress as you work to feel better.

NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, email it to, or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.

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