By Wendy Kagan
Anxiety: We all have it at one point or another. Something keeps us up at night, or gives us that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling we can’t ignore. In many ways,
anxiety is just a built-in defense mechanism designed to help us problem-solve and keep us safe. Even if it’s unwanted, it can be useful: Say, if we’re in a dangerous
situation like heavy traffic, a burst of anxiety can help keep us extra vigilant at the wheel.
Yet for some people, anxiety accelerates out of control like a car without brakes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), some 18 percent of American adults, or 40 million people, suffer from an anxiety disorder. Experts classify the disorders into six types: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Perhaps the most common, GAD is marked by the constant onslaught of multiple worries that can have debilitating effects.
So how do we know if what we’re experiencing is normal, every day anxiety or a true anxiety disorder like GAD? Distinguishing between the two is not always so simple, says Tracy Foose, MD, associate director of the Adult Psychiatry Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco. “The quick answer is that the definition of pathological anxiety is subjective. If someone feels it is interfering in their day-to-day functioning, then it’s worth treating.”
The following five signs are strong clues that anxiety has crossed over into a disorder that could benefit from treatment:
Your anxiety feels like “too much”. For someone with GAD, every facet of daily life feels high-stakes and overwhelming. “The level of anxiety feels out of proportion to the problem,” says Foose. There is also a tendency toward “castastrophizing”, where worry can snowball into imagined catastrophe.
You have physical symptoms too. Those suffering from an anxiety disorder often experience physiological symptoms. While the most common are muscle tension, headaches, and upset stomach, the spectrum can also include fatigue, nausea, numbness in the hands and feet, fidgeting, bouts of difficulty swallowing or breathing, and diarrhea. Adds Foose, “People who suffer from GAD often also suffer from migraines and IBS [irritable bowel syndrome],” and researchers are exploring “the serotonergic neurocircuitry in the brain and the gut.”
Sleep is elusive. Chronic insomnia is often a hallmark of GAD, with anxious thoughts either keeping you awake or disrupting sleep.
The anxiety has more than one trigger. Rather than stemming from a single cause, pathological anxiety can wax and wane independent of stress. “It’s a broadspread concern about everyday stressors: money, health, relationships, work,” says Foose. “[People with GAD] could have severe anxiety on vacation, or after exams are over when all their friends are celebrating.”
There’s no end in sight. While everyone experiences anxiety some of the time, people with an anxiety disorder often see no endpoint to their state of turmoil. If the anxiety lasts for weeks or months on end, it could be a true disorder that can find relief with medical treatment.
Of course, we’re all unique with our own particular set of signs and symptoms. If anxiety has ballooned into something larger than you can handle, it’s important to seek the opinion of a medical professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. With today’s range of pharmacological options, combined with a personalized medicine approach like GeneSight, recovery from an anxiety disorder is well within your reach.