Generalised anxiety disorder

What is generalised anxiety disorder?

People with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) worry excessively about a number of different areas of life, such as family, health, finances, and work difficulties. People with GAD are plagued by these worries most days, for several months or more, and are also bothered by symptoms like:

  • feeling constantly ‘on edge’ and unable to relax.
  • muscle tension.
  • difficulty falling and staying asleep.
  • feeling tired or easily exhausted.
  • increased irritability.
  • trouble concentrating and focussing on a task.

Why do I feel this way?

GAD can be triggered by a stressful life event such as losing a job, relationship breakdowns, and other periods of prolonged stress, but it’s often caused by a combination of factors and not just one thing. Other factors such as a family history of mental health problems, chronic physical health issues, and certain personality types – such as being a perfectionist or having low self-esteem - can make it more likely that someone will develop GAD.

You are not alone

GAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders. Approximately six out of 100 Australians experience it at some point in their lives. Some research suggests that GAD might be even more common in veterans; at one stage or another about 14 out of 100 Vietnam veterans have been affected by it[1]. However amongst current serving ADF members[2], only one in 100 have GAD currently. Many people with GAD suffer from other mental health problems as well; over their lifetime, someone with GAD is about 5 times more likely than the average person to have depression, and twice as likely to have a problem with drugs or alcohol[3].

Anxiety and older veterans

Older people who are feeling anxious often don’t do anything about it. Some don’t want to worry their family or friends, and others don’t believe in talking about mental health or don’t want to admit they’re not coping. Many older people suffer medical conditions that have symptoms similar to anxiety, or take prescription medications that mask those symptoms, so it can be easy to miss or ignore the fact that anxiety is an issue. A common anxiety problem among older adults is a fear of falling. This affects around 1 in 10 older people[4], and for many will mean they avoid physical activity and find it hard to take care of daily tasks like bathing or shopping. The good news is that anxiety can be treated no matter your age.

What treatments can help?

One of the most effective treatments for GAD is cognitive behavioural therapy – this approach recognises that the way we think and act affects the way we feel. Typically, during this therapy you will learn:

  • relaxation strategies such as controlled breathing and muscle relaxation exercises
  • a step-by-step problem-solving approach to help manage day to day problems so that they don’t seem so overwhelming
  • strategies to challenge negative thoughts that might be triggering and maintaining your worry (like "everything’s going wrong" or "I can’t deal with this").

The High Res website and app offers a range of interactive cognitive behavioural therapy-based tools, self-help resources and videos that can help you manage some of the symptoms of anxiety. These tools can help manage your physical reactions such as rapid breathing and pounding heartbeat.

Take Action: Relax Your Body and Slow Your Breathing

Feeling constantly ‘on edge’ leads to muscle tension, fatigue, aches and pains.

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool teaches you how to tense and relax different muscle groups in your body. The Controlled Breathing tool teaches you how to slow your breathing rate. These tools will help you to feel calmer and release tension from your body.

These tools will take some practice to get the most out of them. When you’re starting out it’s best to practice one (or both!) of these tools once a day, when you are feeling reasonably calm. Once you’ve learnt the skills you can use them when you feel anxious.

You can also access these tools on the High Res app to use on the go.

If you’re worried about a particular problem or situation you find yourself in, the Problem Solving tool can help you work through your problem and come up with solutions.

Take Action: Use Problem Solving strategies

Spending a lot of time worrying about issues in your life often makes you feel worse, and usually doesn’t solve the problem.

If you’re worried about a particular problem or situation you find yourself in, use the Problem Solving tool to help work though the problem and find the best solution.

When you’re starting out, use the tool to solve a relatively simple problem. Once you’ve learned the basic skills you can start to apply the problem solving steps to more complex situations as they arise in your day to day life.

Take Action:  Think about things differently

The way that we think influences the way we feel. Thinking in an unhelpful way can make you feel more tense and on edge.

Use the Stop and Swap Thoughts tool to help you to identify unhelpful thoughts and swap them with more helpful thoughts.

When you’re starting out it’s a good idea to learn helpful thinking skills with a situation that is bothering you but isn’t too overwhelming. Once you’ve learned the skills you can apply them to more troubling situations. With practice, you’ll be able to apply these skills day-to-day as situations arise.

The Thought Stopping tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go.

While it is usually best to start with psychological treatment, some people need additional assistance to help manage their anxiety. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressant medication for this purpose.

Where do I get help?

  • A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome GAD, as they can refer you to specialists, and, if necessary, support your efforts with medications.

  • Call Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling (formerly VVCS):  1800 011 046.

  • This website has information on a range of professional care that is available to current and former serving members.

Self-help resources

There are a number of resources you could use on your own or preferably together with your therapist to help you address some of the symptoms of GAD.

Joe’s story...

"The fact is, I’ve always been a worrier, ever since I was a kid. I’d worry about my family and my Mum and Dad (they used to fight a bit). I worried about whether there’d be enough money for me to finish school. I worried about my health – every time I had an ache or pain I was sure I was going to die. I worried about school work, parties, friends. Pretty much everything – you name it, I worried about it. And when I worried I’d get all tense, my stomach would churn, sometimes I’d even break out in a sweat."


Read more of Joe's story here

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007, ABS catalogue no. 4326.0, Canberra.

[2] O'Toole, B. I., Marshall, R. P., Grayson, D. A., Schureck, R. J., Dobson, M., Ffrench, M., . . . Vennard, J. (1996). The Australian Vietnam veterans health study: III. Psychological health of Australian Vietnam veterans and its relationship to combat. International Journal of Epidemiology, 25, 331-339.

[3] McFarlane, A. C., Hodson, S. E., Van Hooff, M., & Davies, C. (2011). Mental health in the Australian Defence Force: 2010 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Study: Full report. Canberra: Department of Defence.

[4] Merikangas, K.R., Swanson, S.A. (2010). Comorbidity in anxiety disorders. Behavioural Neurobiology of Anxiety and Its Treatment, 37-59.