A few years ago I was diagnosed with something called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Just hearing the term made me skeptical, since it sounded so, you know, general. It struck me as a catch-all "disorder" to label everyone for whom a specific disorder doesn't apply.
Once I moved beyond those knee jerk reactions, I spent many hours reading through research on GAD and learned a few things that began filling in the picture a bit more. For one, I realized that for a long time I'd equated anxiety disorders with panic attacks. Since I am not prone to panic attacks, I had never seriously considered myself as having a true to form anxiety disorder. For example, I've never become uncontrollably dizzy and blacked out, as some who experience panic attacks do.
Learning more about anxiety disorders revealed that my definition was slanted to one extreme, and that for most people with GAD the symptoms are rarely so pronounced. Instead of acutely manifesting, as with a panic attack, generalized anxiety is more of an undercurrent. It may weaken or strengthen as situations change, but it's always flowing not far below the surface.
I also learned that one does not suddenly just "get" GAD. Instead, it is part of a continuum of anxiety disorders that often reaches well into childhood. Thinking back, I was able to identify several symptoms of childhood anxiety that at the time were largely ignored or written off as "quirks." Likely no one else knew how consuming they were, or how frustrating it was to have "quirks" that seemed beyond my control.
Those reflections are especially important to me now (as a parent) because our society has developed an appetite for quick categorization when it comes to kids' behavior. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is, as we know, the category de jour to explain the outbursts and unsettledness displayed by many kids, and the accepted medical remedies are routinely applied. But the more I've learned about anxiety, the more I wonder if some (not all) of those kids aren't suffering from something altogether different than ADD, and if the remedies are really going to help them adjust for the long term.
I offer that observation because long-term adjustment is a big part of addressing the unfolding nature of anxiety disorders. There is no categorical fix or short-term treatment to stem the persistent undercurrent.
If anxiety disorder seems foreign to you, or if you're thinking that everyone experiences anxiety--so what's the big deal?--here's a simple metaphor that I've found useful in describing the differences. For everyone with a functioning nervous system, the anxiety response is an important part of anticipating problems and threats. It's the red flag that signals something is going wrong, or about to go wrong, and we need to adjust our behavior accordingly.
But for people with anxiety disorder, the mechanism that raises the red flag doesn't quite work the right way. The flag is frantically shaken up and down, sometimes in reaction to every new situation, causing the person worry and confusion about what's an actual or imagined threat, and to what degree she or he should react to it. It also doesn't abate just because the problem "seems" to have passed. Anxiety lingers for those with malfunctioning red flags (because, in a sense, it never goes away) causing a heightened state of alertness and tension that over time takes a toll on the body.
Another way to look at anxiety disorder is to imagine that every situation we face carries a certain amount of energy--negative or positive (no, this isn't going to veer New Age, bear with me for a minute). When that energy is negative, it swirls around chaotically, pulling and pushing us until we figure out how to handle it. That's true for everyone.
But for people with anxiety disorder, the energy swirl spins faster and faster--whether or not the situation itself is actually worsening--until it becomes a tornado threatening to engulf them. Their experience of the "energy" of the situation is out of proportion to the actual problem. Depending upon the severity of the disorder, this may happen again and again, like an unsettling movie that just keeps playing.
And the situation doesn't even have to be negative to elicit this reaction. One of the most frustrating aspects of GAD is that our brains seem to find a way to hyper-react even when whatever comes up is just a plain vanilla situation, or even a potentially good one. Again, everyone to some degree experiences these reactions (good old fashioned "nervous energy" about something great on the horizon), but for those with anxiety disorder, the reaction quickly hits another level, with the result of feeling out of control.
For sake of article length, I am going to conclude here for now, but will pick up the discussion in a future post about what the research indicates causes anxiety disorders and what we can do about it.
Copyright 2011, David DiSalvo