Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Individuals diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may depend on drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms, which can lead to an addiction. Discover how a co-occurring addiction is diagnosed and treated.

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What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

People who continuously struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety may have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). They live in a constant state of worry, which can take a toll on their professional and social life, as well as personal relationships.

An estimated 20 percent of those who have an anxiety disorder also have a substance use disorder.

As a way to cope with nerves and calm the mind, those with GAD may turn to alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately, relying on these substances will only heighten the body’s sense of anxiety once you come down from their effects.

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Co-occurring Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Addiction

Individuals struggling with GAD are significantly more likely to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol than those who don’t have anxiety. As symptoms of the disorder progress, people may turn to substances as a way to self-medicate. Oftentimes, alcohol and drugs are used as an outlet to escape reality, ease the symptoms of anxiety and produce a sense of happiness.

Many symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder mirror the signs of addiction. Other mood disorders, such as depression, may also occur alongside generalized anxiety disorder. It is crucial that individuals seek treatment for any and all mental health addictions present.

The most common substances associated with generalized anxiety disorder include:

Substance abuse has a large impact on the psychological symptoms of anxiety, which can lead to dependency. After a while, a person’s body may develop a tolerance to alcohol or drugs, meaning they need to increase their intake to get the same effect as before. This sparks a dangerous cycle of addiction that can be difficult to overcome without professional treatment.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

Generalized anxiety disorder is most commonly diagnosed between childhood and middle age. However, anyone at any age can be diagnosed with this disorder. GAD typically manifests itself as mild symptoms of anxiety, which become worse over time.

Behavioral and physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include:

  • Expecting the worst
  • Worrying excessively
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to relax
  • Stress
  • Muscle tension
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Hot flashes
  • Trembling

The symptoms stemming from generalized anxiety disorder usually persist for months and can become worse if left untreated. Sometimes, fears or worries may shift from one concern to another, which can complicate personal and professional responsibilities.

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Diagnosing Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Symptoms of anxiety are associated with many other mental health conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder. As a result, it can be difficult to distinguish GAD from other conditions during the early stages of diagnosis.

A physician or psychologist will typically perform a mental health screening to diagnose generalized anxiety disorder. Various medical tests may also be needed to rule out any underlying health conditions, such as thyroid disease, heart disease or menopause, which can also contribute to heightened levels of anxiety.

Some of the exams used to diagnose generalized anxiety disorder include:

  • Physical exam

    A physical exam is used to determine any physical conditions that may be linked to anxiety. Results may reveal a health condition that mimics the symptoms of GAD.

  • Blood and urine tests

    If a doctor suspects there is an underlying health complication or substance abuse problem, they will perform various blood or urine tests to determine the best treatment method.

  • Psychological questionnaire

    Finding out how a person views various life matters helps mental health professionals determine the type of anxiety disorder present. These questionnaires can also be used to create an individualized treatment plan focused on alleviating the symptoms of anxiety.

Treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Addiction

Depending on the severity of one’s generalized anxiety disorder, psychotherapy and/or medication may be recommended. While anti-anxiety medications do not cure a person’s anxiety disorder, they can help relieve symptoms. When medication is combined with psychotherapy, results can be significant in helping those with anxiety live a better life.

Only 43.2 percent of those living with generalized anxiety disorder receive treatment.

Psychotherapy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Psychotherapy entails meeting with a mental health professional on an as-needed basis to find behavioral solutions that reduce anxiety. Over time, this form of treatment teaches people how to identify the signs of anxiety and improve their reactions to different situations that may arise.

Medications for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

There are several medications that doctors may prescribe to treat anxiety. It’s important to speak with your physician or mental health professional about the benefits, risks and side effects associated with the drug before taking it.

For people struggling with co-occurring addiction and anxiety, it’s crucial to know the addictive potential of medications before starting on any new treatment plan. Make sure your doctor knows about any substance abuse in your past so they can help you find a non-addictive treatment solution for anxiety.

Some of the most common anti-anxiety and antidepressants that may be prescribed include:

  • Xanax
  • Buspar
  • Celexa
  • Zoloft
  • Pristiq
  • Lexapro

These medications may be used short-term or long-term, depending on the severity of the person’s condition. It is extremely important for individuals to keep an open line of communication with their doctor while taking any prescription medication.

Get Help for a Dual Diagnosis

People with generalized anxiety disorder and co-occurring addiction should seek professional treatment to help manage their conditions. If left untreated, these conditions can become more severe and negatively impact a person’s life for years.

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