What's an anxiety disorder and why should you care?

by Dorian Minors

May 17, 2014

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt: General anxiety disorder affects about 3 people in 20 every year. That's a lot. Chances are you're friends with someone who has it. Why though? What causes it? In this article, we go over the ins and outs of GAD in a simplistic way, so you can relate to people with this diagnosis and understand them better.


This is an article from our predecessor, The Dirt Psychology.

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Anxiety is a normal healthy emotion. It’s thought to be a function of our survival instinct. When we become anxious, our brain gets a bit more active and certain types of anxiety can actually increase our performance in sport or test-like situations. Why? Because anxiety helps us get ‘psyched up’ in response to some kind of threat. When the bushes rustle, our brains needed something to get it focused and figure out whether we’re about to fight some kind of jungle cat. Unfortunately, sometimes our brains get it wrong. For some reason, almost one in five of us (about 14% of adults and 3-5% of kids have an anxiety diagnosis every year) will turn this normal emotion into a disorder. This mini-series will show you how and why. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) What: GAD is one of the most well known disorders related to anxiety. It’s generally this that we think of when someone says anxiety. A pervasive anxiety about everything is often what we picture. GAD is characterised by a sense of worry about things that is felt to be uncontrollable. Now again, worry can be useful. We all worry. It motivates us to plan for the future. But for people diagnosed with GAD, worry becomes a burden; an indiscriminate and unproductive worry that is uncontrollable. You might think you’ll be late for the train. Maybe you meeting or lecture is running late. You’ll think to yourself ‘ok, I’ll catch the next one’, or maybe ‘look like I’m running for it again’. Generally, the worry will sink to the back of your mind. But what if it didn’t? No matter what you did; how you approached the problem; it was still at the forefront of your mind? And to cap it off, what if you knew how ridiculous it was to be worrying this much? Well, that’s the day to day for someone diagnosed with GAD. How: Well, those diagnosed with GAD have excessive muscle tension and mental agitation. This means they are constantly on alert and their minds flick from crisis to crisis. Very little break between them. What you’ll find is that those with GAD will worry about the same things as people without. The difference is that those with GAD will worry insanely about the minor details of everyday life. Like the train example earlier. Or maybe ‘what will I feed the dog’. Things that most people can just brush away with a simple plan, those with GAD will incessantly return to. And although they often realise it’s pretty bizarre, they still think that the worst case scenario for these minor inconveniences could really happen, no matter what the actual probability. Why: As with most Anxiety Disorders, there seems to be a pretty large genetic contribution. Generally, 30-40% of all anxiety symptoms (across all anxiety disorders) appear to be heritable - that is, passed down from parents to children. However, unlike those disorders where panic is a symptom (and we talk about panic disorder later in the series), those with GAD appear to be less responsive on a physical level. It’s all taking place in the mind here. What it looks like is that those with GAD are super sensitive to threats. Even to things like angry faces or negative words, the brain will light up. So their brain is actually distracting them from their body. Now having a physical response to something usually means that it’s more threatening to us. It’s a natural reaction. Fight or flight. But since the brain here is subduing that, there’s no way to tell what kinds of threat is more threatening and so the brain never stops worrying! So that’s it for generalised anxiety disorder. Stay tuned and in between other articles, we’ll occasionally put out something about other anxiety disorders to round up this mini-series! If you liked this, you might like our article on rejection sensitivity, a sort of social anxiety. Or maybe you want to know why people do other weird things, like speak in tonguesGiving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

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