By Claire Golden
It’s normal to be nervous from time to time, and some anxiety can be helpful. For instance, if you’re nervous about giving a speech, those feelings can encourage you to prepare and practice. But there’s a difference between being anxious sometimes and having an anxiety disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 19% of adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder…almost one in five people! So what is the difference? And how can you tell if you’re one of the more than 40 million people who has one?
There are five main types of anxiety disorders: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Social Anxiety. I have a few of these myself and sometimes refer to this as my “alphabet soup” because of all the abbreviations. GAD is the most common and is usually what people mean when they talk about “having anxiety.” Put simply, in order to have GAD, you have an overwhelming sense of worry and being out of control most days for at least six months. This is extremely different from situational anxiety, like before a date or the first day of classes.
In my experience, the hard thing about anxiety is that there often isn’t anything concrete that you’re worried about. You’re just worried. Sometimes I’ll say to my boyfriend, “I’m nervous.” He’ll respond, “Do you know what you’re nervous about?” And I’ll say, “No, I don’t!” (Usually followed by a hug or him bringing me the cat to cuddle.) It’s frustrating, because if there was something specific that was worrying me, I could deal with that problem and the anxiety would go away. But I just feel like something bad is going to happen without knowing what. It’s like suspenseful music playing in a horror movie, where you know something is about to jump out at you.
The distinction between just being worried and actually having an anxiety disorder is one that our society doesn’t recognize, but is important to understand. People who don’t have a disorder, can find it hard to understand why an anxious person is so worried. They might want to fix the situation when there’s no concrete problem to fix. But it just doesn’t work that way..
If this resonates with you, consider contacting your doctor or make an appointment at SHAC to receive a diagnosis and discuss next steps and treatment. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve learned a lot in the course of understanding my own anxiety. In my next post, I’ll be sharing some coping techniques that have helped me immensely. I was diagnosed with GAD when I was six years old, so I’ve been dealing with this for a long time. I used to be too scared to tell people about it for fear of the stigma, but it’s become my mission to break down some of the walls around mental illness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and whatever your brain may tell you, you’re not alone.