Anxiety as a diagnosis has often been perceived as negative and conversations around individuals who make a full recovery are few. However, researchers are trying to change that. In a University of Toronto (U of T) study released last week and led by Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor and director of the school’s Institute for Life Course and Aging, the findings are largely optimistic. “[Many people think that] if you have an anxiety disorder, you’re going to have it forever,” Fuller-Thomson told Re:Set. “I realized it makes much more sense to actually study recovery rather than just [look at] predictors of negative outcomes.”
The researchers were studying the recovery rates of individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It is a mental health condition that is classified by symptoms such as nervousness, worrying, trouble focusing on tasks, palpitations, insomnia, fatigue and more. The observational study relied on secondary analyses and included national data from over 2,000 Canadian nationals who had lived with generalized anxiety disorder. The team looked at factors such as a respondent’s overall health and well-being, gender, age, physical disabilities, social isolation and more. The findings were encouraging.
“Social support is really key for all mental health in all populations.”
72% of the respondents came forward and said that they’d been in remission from anxiety for a year and 40% of the participants managed to reach an optimal state of well-being. The bar was set “very high” for participants during the study; to be considered as being in complete mental health, respondents were required to fulfill a few conditions. Fuller-Thomson and her team zeroed down on a few factors that were applicable to participants for a year. These included not facing symptoms of anxiety, no other mental illness, not experiencing suicidal ideation, and feeling a sense of fulfillment and happiness almost every single day for a year. The results were still far more positive than anticipated.
Several factors that act as barriers to recovery such as social isolation were considered and Fuller-Thomson and her peers found it to be a highly relevant and crucial problem to decode. “Being lonely is really bad for your health in general,” Fuller-Thomson told Re:Set. “Social support is really key for all mental health in all populations.” She added that it’s not hard to know that this is a problem that applies not only to respondents in Canada, but also to individuals living with mental illness globally.
When asked about solutions, she cited an example: in the U.K., a minister of loneliness was appointed in 2018 to tackle the epidemic on a policy level. Fuller-Thomson reckons that policymakers in Canada need to take social isolation more seriously including for those living with disabilities and special needs. She said that for them, the likelihood of being isolated is higher especially in a country like Canada where the extreme climate during the winter months there makes it hard to even get a simple task like grocery shopping done. If you’re a person living with a disability, your functional challenges are going to be worse, Fuller-Thomson explained. Overall, she believes that more research is needed about mental health and anxiety in developing countries and researchers need to identify the prevalence of mental illnesses, the causes, recovery rates and ways to prevent and treat mental illness in a more accessible manner.
It’s important for health professionals to start looking at mental health on a broader level and examine physical and mental health as a whole without excluding the other, Fuller-Thomson said. “I would really like them [health practitioners] to do this [approach treatment and recovery] holistically.” Factors such as insomnia, functional limitations, physical health, managing debilitating chronic pain, loneliness and more should be taken far more seriously as they can often hinder recovery, Fuller-Thomson reflected. She suggests connecting individuals with outreach services and volunteers to help them fight social isolation.
Overall, the team is humbled by the positive outcomes of the study. Their findings indicate that it can be possible to make a full recovery after being diagnosed and living with anxiety. “We really need to be thinking about how to prevent [mental illness] and also how people come through, come over to the other side and flourish,” Fuller-Thomson said.
Other factors that helped people cope, according to the study, included turning to religion and spirituality, sleeping well, having a strong emotional support system and being in overall good physical health. Also, the chances of recovering after each decade go up. “You have a 19% higher likelihood of being in better mental health [after every decade,]” Fuller-Thomson explained. Women with anxiety have also been documented to have higher recovery rates, she added. “It certainly doesn’t mean that men can’t recover. It’s just that women tend to have a higher prevalence rate [in terms of recovery]. Men are less likely to get an anxiety disorder in the first place.” Past research has indicated that this could be because of differences in the way our brains are wired and hormones. Additionally, the way men and women respond to different circumstances are perceived to be varied.
While the generalized anxiety disorder varies from person to person, the findings are optimistic and can pave the way for more research in terms of recovery and general well-being. “Recovery is not [just] possible, it’s probable,” Fuller-Thomson emphasized, indicating that from their sample size, it appears that most people have recovered and more than half do not have any other mental illness. “When you’re in the depths of despair [and] when life seems totally overwhelming and you have a severe anxiety disorder, [your state of mind] doesn’t define you. Even if you’ve had it [anxiety] for a decade, you can come through this.”