A young boy refuses to go to his first day of third grade. His mom thinks he must just be nervous for the new year and will be okay tomorrow, but he fights her for weeks to come. He also seems to have lost interest in playing his favorite sports, soccer and basketball, with his friends.

After a tough five years, she’s finally graduated college and fortunately has a job lined up. But she feels that familiar worry creep down her spine as she lays in bed the night before her first day—she finally falls asleep just an hour or two before she is to wake up.

His daughter tells him that she’s going to see a concert tonight with her friends. He feels his muscles tense up as he hugs her goodbye and he tries to distract himself in the hours that follow. But all he can focus on is the danger or trouble she could get into. He decides to sit in the living room and await her return—even if that means staying up all night to ensure she makes it back safe.

The word ‘anxiety’, gets thrown around a lot these days. Someone watches a scary movie and claims to have anxiety, or upon walking into class on the day of a test feels anxious. While we all certainly worry and sometimes experience a mild anxiety, anxiety is also a state of apprehension characteristic of certain mental disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder. Someone with generalized anxiety disorder experiences excessive anxiety and worry about a multitude of events and situations. But because of the ease we have when it comes to using the word anxiety, it can be hard to tell if what you’re feeling is just normal worry like your friend at the movie or if this anxiety is more serious and a sign of this generalized anxiety disorder like the characters in the above examples.

Diagnostic Criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder DSM-5 300.02 (F41.1)

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), lays out a list of criteria that is used to determine generalized anxiety disorder. If you’re concerned or think there may be a chance you have a more serious form of anxiety than the average person, check your symptoms with the following:

  • You experience excessive anxiety or worry more days than not, over a period of at least 6 months, about a variety of events (e.g., such as attending work or school).
  • You find it challenging to control this excessive anxiety and worry.
  • These worries are associated with at least three of the following symptoms (children required to have only one):
    • You feel restless
    • You are easily fatigued
    • You have difficulty concentrating or staying on task
    • You are irritable
    • You experience muscle tension
    • You have some form of a sleep disturbance (such as difficult staying or falling asleep, or having unsatisfying sleep)
  • Your anxiety or symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in important areas of life (e.g., occupational or social).
  • Your anxiety is not due to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition.
  • Your anxiety cannot be attributed to another mental disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or panic disorder.

People of all ages can develop generalized anxiety disorder, but the content of which the individual worries is dependent on this given age. Children and teens typically worry more about school and sporting performance, while adults worry about their well-being as well as their family’s.

Combating Your Anxiety

For those that are affected by this generalized anxiety disorder, they may benefit from a couple different treatment options including:

  • Psychotherapy: In psychotherapy, the therapist simply works with the client to reduce the anxiety symptoms. To be more specific, cognitive behavioral therapy is a very effective form of psychotherapy and teaches the individual skills that will help him or her carefully confront activities and situations he or she avoided due to their excessive anxiety.
  • Medication: Certain antidepressants, as well as buspirone and benzodiazepines may be used to treat generalized anxiety.

Understanding What It’s Like to Have Anxiety

A lot of people don’t understand the concept of anxiety or mental health in general. They think that it’s all in someone’s head, that they control what goes on in their brain, and that maybe they’re being dramatic or seeking attention. However, this is not the case. Anxiety or depression or any given mental illness may not produce the same symptoms as say, the flu or a cold, but that doesn’t mean that it’s made-up and that it isn’t harmful. The following are quotes from individuals suffering with anxiety that may just help someone understand it better:

“I get nervous about everything, sometimes I literally don’t know why I’m anxious, I just am and no one seems to understand that.”

“Living with anxiety is like being followed by a voice. It knows all your insecurities and uses them against you. It gets to the point when it’s the loudest voice in the room—the only one you can hear.”

“I lied and said I was busy. I was busy but not in a way most people understand. I was busy taking deeper breaths. I was busy silencing irrational thoughts. I was busy calming a racing heart. I was busy telling myself I am okay. Sometimes, this is my busy and I will not apologize for it.”

“I worry my depression and anxiety are always going to keep me from being the person I dreamed of becoming.”

“This is one of the most frustrating things about having an anxiety disorder: knowing as you’re freaking out that there’s no reason to be freaked out, but lacking the ability to shut the emotion down.”