Normal Worry versus Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are the worry experts. It’s not uncommon for people with the disorder to assume that they are locked into daily uncontrollable worry. Untreated, these individuals learn to compensate in other ways, often settling for a lower quality of life; resigning themselves to physical and emotional discomfort.
Everyone worries to some degree at some point about something in their lives. However, the worry experienced by individuals with generalized anxiety disorder is clearly out of proportion to the actual likelihood or impact of the feared event. The worry is longstanding.
Themes of worry may include health, finances, job responsibilities, safety of one’s children or even being late for appointments. The worry is difficult to control and interferes with the task at hand. For example, students may find it difficult to get their schoolwork done and parents often describe difficulty letting their child get on the school bus. These feelings of worry and dread are accompanied by physical symptoms such as pain from muscle tension, headache, frequent urination, difficulty swallowing, “lump in the throat” or exaggerated startle response.
For some people this chronic anxiety and worry have become the standard approach taken to all situations, no matter how little the worry is based in actual situations. While the exact cause for GAD is uncertain, experts feel that it’s a combination of biological factors and life events. It’s not uncommon for some people with GAD to also have other medical disorders such as depression and/or panic disorder. These may be influenced by the activity certain chemicals systems in the brain.
This silent suffering can make diagnosing GAD difficult. It’s also further complicated because a certain amount of anxiety and worry are normal and other medical disorders can be involved as well.
If someone suspects they have GAD, it’s very important for them to reflect on what situations cause anxious feelings, how long they have experienced these feelings and if the worry is reasonable. For example, someone in their 30s with no medical problems who has had two normal physical examinations in the past six months but spends the day worrying about their health may be experiencing GAD.
Most people with GAD describe themselves as constant worriers and acknowledge that this approach to situations is something they have done their entire lives. Often others describe them as “high strung,” “nervous” or “tense.”
But it’s helpful to recognize this constant anxiety as a treatable disorder, not a quirk or an inherent character weakness. Remember that heightened anxiety or worry has a purpose, but for people with GAD, routine activities are perceived as risky and this perception is strong and steadfast.