Anxiety is a healthy and normal response to certain situations, especially those involving danger or personal difficulty. The feeling of anxiousness is part of what drives a person to prepare for challenges in life. The key difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety has to do with frequency and function – how often are the symptoms of anxiety present, and to what degree do those symptoms impede your ability to function? Together, function and frequency create a litmus test for discerning the difference between normal anxiety and the mental health condition called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Usually a person must exhibit at least three of these physical symptoms to be diagnosed with GAD:
- Muscle tightness
- Sweaty palms
- Feeling tired or weak
- Sleeplessness – can’t unwind and relax
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Racing heart.
There are mental signs of anxiety as well. Most often these manifest as an inability to stay focused or having difficulty remembering things. Again, a person with normal worry and anxiety may experience these symptoms temporarily. Anxiety disorder is all about function and frequency. Function is how much the symptoms interfere with your ability to live, work, play and relate to others. Anxiety is a problem when it degrades your ability to function well in these areas. For example:
- If worrying interferes with your job or your social life – people with normal anxiety may worry but they can still perform their job and enjoy relationships with others
- If you feel that you cannot control your feelings of worry or anxiety – healthy anxiety can be set aside momentarily in order to take care of more immediate needs
- If you have no specific reason for your anxiety or you worry about a large number of things – normal worry has a specific cause or just a small number of causes
- If you spend a great amount of time worrying – studies show healthy worry consumes less than one hour per day while disordered anxiety lasts over 300 minutes per day.
It’s okay to worry for a while about some things. It isn’t okay to worry for a long time about many things or nothing in particular. If a person spends more days consumed with worry than they spend free from anxiety, and if that has been the case for more than six months, then they may suffer from GAD.