One of the most puzzling aspects of anxiety for many people is the depth or extent of the symptoms they experience. It is part of the human condition to worry about things and some people seem more anxious than others. Where then is the dividing line between someone who seems anxious and someone who has a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?
One of the most distinctive clues often comes from other people. They will often tell you that you worry too much over silly little things. This really is the nub of the issue with GAD sufferers - they worry about everything - constantly and excessively.
Most people have concerns that prioritize around themselves and their immediate family or their work. ‘What if?’ questions are a real feature of the disorder. These questions nearly always cluster around issues of health, family, money and work. In that regard they may appear to be no different to normal concerns, yet it is the duration and depth of concerns that are most obvious. Fear and concerns also extend beyond the typical concerns of everyday life and they embrace issues of a global nature.
People who suffer with GAD are particularly sensitive to real or supposed feedback. For example, if someone at work is more efficient, or if there is the slightest hint they might have done something better, the alarm bells ring and thought processes quickly spin out of control to a point where they truly believe they are about to be fired. A husband (sufferers are usually women) who says he prefers one meal, or one dress, or one pair of shoes, over another, is perceived as an impending separation. The stress of living with GAD is such that while many sufferers have little choice but to try and continue as normal a life as possible, some become too seriously affected.
At the point where normal functioning is affected a diagnosis of GAD is likely to follow if problems persist for several months. By this point the doctor will be presented with symptoms of chronic worry, sleeping difficulties, a sense of dread and quite possibly a list of physical symptoms to which the person has attributed some life-threatening disease. If you suffer with GAD you will probably feel irritable and edgy and you will have a tendency to over-react to things like a sudden noise. Despite all these symptoms there is a chance that the condition is wrongly diagnosed unless the doctor is particularly vigilant and probing in their consultation. It is estimated that around 3 per cent of the population has GAD, so the chance of some other condition (e.g. depression, panic) being diagnosed is possible.
As with all psychological symptoms the doctor will probably want to rule out physical problems that can mimic the symptoms of anxiety. Some of the chief suspects are heart murmurs, diabetes, high blood pressure and thyroid problems. Once diagnosed the treatment and self-help options include cognitive therapy, medication, relaxation, physical exercise and a balanced diet.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.