In some ways, anxiety is a useful emotion. It can help you recognize that a desolate street isn’t safe to be by yourself, or prevent you from procrastinating on a lengthy project.
“Everybody worries sometimes, and anxiety sometimes is a good red flag to let you know that maybe there’s a problem that you need to attend to,” says Gail Saltz, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine.
But when anxiety gets blown out of proportion or you find yourself worrying about every little thing, it’s no longer useful or healthy. “It shouldn’t interfere with your function,” says Dr. Saltz.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one type of anxiety disorder that includes having exaggerated worry or tension over various issues that may not seem like a big deal to others. The worries occur throughout the day, for different reasons, for weeks on end. For some people with GAD, this acute worrying can be endless—and mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting.
Here’s how GAD might play out in real life. If someone is heading to catch the train to work, the idea of missing the train is unpleasant but usually no biggie (there will be another one, right?). However, for someone with GAD, this possibility could be apocalyptic. Fear of missing the train becomes fear of being late for work, which becomes fear of being reprimanded, and then fear of being fired, and so on. It becomes a “rollercoaster of negative thinking,” says Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, a psychologist in New York City.
The difference between being a “worrier” and having GAD can sometimes look like a fine line, but here are the symptoms that might indicate a generalized anxiety disorder, according to Khadijah Watkins, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine.
Fears of the future
Irritability or feeling “on edge”
Another clue your worrying is actually generalized anxiety: Because these persistent fears feel so catastrophic, you may cope by trying to control every detail or plan out every minute of your life. When things feel out of your control, symptoms may become worse, or you may develop more dangerous coping strategies: About 20 percent of Americans with anxiety disorders also struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Constant anxiety can also translate into physical symptoms. These somatic symptoms can also indicate GAD:
Learn about more physical signs of anxiety here.
GAD affects 3.1 percent of U.S. adults, according to the ADAA. Treatment for GAD usually involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication. To combat negative thought patterns, cognitive behavioral therapy may be effective for many with anxiety.
“If you know someone with anxiety disorder, gently, thoughtfully encourage them to seek treatment,” says Dr. Watkins. “[Point] out what kind of life they want to live, and what they’d like to achieve.” It may take multiple conversations and repeating the same points before they are ready to hear it, process it, and be motivated to seek treatment.