Worrying is a part of life. It’s natural to worry about the stressful things in our lives. But what happens when that worry becomes invasive and persistent? For people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), worrying can take over their lives, becoming excessive and exaggerated.
A person with GAD doesn’t simply have rational worries based on actual risk—they worry regardless of outside stressors, exaggerate the perceived level of risk, and cannot rationalize away the worry.
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Affecting about 6.8 million adults—or 3.1% of the U.S. population—in any given year, GAD is a common mental illness that is characterized by an excessive, chronic worry that interferes with a person’s ability to function normally.
People with GAD do not have a focused fear of a specific nature, such as found with a phobia, but rather their anxiety is spread out or changes from one thing to another repeatedly.
For example, someone without GAD may notice that a friend has not answered their text and make a mental note to follow up with them. Someone with GAD may see this unanswered text and picture their friend hurt or even dead from an accident. They may wonder if their friend is angry with them, or does not want to continue their friendship. They are likely to check and recheck their phone constantly until that friend answers the text.
Often times, a person with GAD is aware that their fear is irrational or disproportionate to the situation, but cannot turn off the worry. Because the anxiety is not based in reality, confronting it with logic or reassurance is not enough to quell it.
Is My Worrying Normal?
A person with GAD may be worried about the same things as a person without GAD, but they take that worry to the extreme.
Paradoxically, for many people with GAD, worrying feels productive. Though they usually recognize it as magical thinking, people with GAD can feel like worrying wards off bad things from happening, and that if they stop worrying about it, their fears will come true.
GAD is exhausting mentally and physically. It impacts nearly every aspect of a person’s life, and can be very overwhelming.
To meet the DSM-5’s criteria for GAD, the following must be met:
Excessive anxiety and worry about a number of activities or events, occurring more days than not for at least 6 months
Difficulty controlling your worry
Three (or more) of the following six symptoms (one or more for children), with at least some symptoms having been present for more days than not for the past 6 months:
Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge
Being easily fatigued
Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
Significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, caused by worry or anxiety
Symptoms are not caused by a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism)
Symptoms are not better explained by another mental illness or disorder
Some other symptoms of GAD include:
Nervousness or irritability
Feeling a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
Increased heart rate
Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
Feeling weak or tired
Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
Muscle tension, headaches, and other unexplained pains
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