Anxiety is at once a ubiquitous everyday part of a normal life, as well as a potentially debilitating condition. General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) plagues a great number of Americans. About 5% of people in the U.S. will have GAD at some point during their lifetime. Nearly twice as many women as men are affected by this condition.
Isn’t some anxiety a normal part of life?
Nervousness and fear are common human emotions that nearly everyone has experienced at one time or another. After all, part of the human experience is dealing with stress. We all face certain challenges: dealing with the phone company or being told that repairs on the car will take an extra three days. Anyone who has moved, started a new job, or given a toast at a wedding will know that anxiety is a part of life. Usually this type of anxiety diminishes when the anxiety-provoking situation diminishes. Some of us deal with situational anxiety better than others. For some of us, facing a deadline or running late in traffic causes us to feel tentative and uncertain. We honk the horn or mutter under our breath. Others are unfazed by the same experience.
Some amount of anxiety is actually a normal, adaptive response. Feeling anxiety when being attacked by a grizzly bear is important in marshaling your adrenaline to either fight back or quickly flee from the scene. Anxiety about the consequences of missing a mechanical failure, for example, is adaptive in airplane technicians.
If anxiety can be a normal part of coping with stresses and threats to life, then when should we think of anxiety as problematic?
Anxiety is clinically significant when it causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. In other words, anxiety is problematic when it impacts your functioning at work or your activities of daily living. Anxiety disorders can be specific, as in the "phobias" (i.e., claustrophobia, agoraphobia), they can result from specific traumatic events (as in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD) or they can be generalized (such as in General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), where patients worry excessively about life circumstances such as relationships, finances, job performance or social acceptance. Central, however, to all of these conditions is the idea that a person’s ability to function is impaired.
What are the symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder? People with GAD can at times feel overwhelmed by their symptoms. The central signs of GAD are anxiety and worry that are difficult to control and have lasted for at least 6 months. In addition to excessive, often uncontrolled worry that impacts functioning, people with GAD experience at least three of the following symptoms:
Restlessness or feeling on edge
Being easily fatigued
Having difficulty concentrating
Sleep Disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
If you feel that the above describes what you are experiencing, you may want to contact a doctor to see what type of treatment, if any, is appropriate. There are several approaches to treatment for GAD that range from pharmacologic intervention (e.g., medications) to behavioral therapy (such as relaxation training). Others may wish to pursue therapy to get at deeper root causes for their anxiety: why for example do we feel uncertain, unsettled or ambivalent about our life choices - which in turn leads to anxiety? In my experience, supplementing an intervention with healthy living habits, such as eating well and, importantly, regular exercise can go a long way toward helping with symptoms.