Virtually everyone can describe personal examples of times they have felt anxious and worried. It’s a natural part of being a member of the human race. However, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a condition where anxiety and worry are present in a person’s life almost all the time and interfere with their success and contentment with life. GAD is an anxiety disorder characterized by almost constant worry that is difficult to control. The worry is accompanied by anxiety and physical symptoms that can include feeling restless, fatigued, and irritable as well as experiencing problems concentrating, muscle tension, and poor sleep.

Approximately 6% of the population will suffer from diagnosable GAD in their lifetime; in a 12-month period, rates of GAD are approximately 3%. Women are two times more likely than men to suffer from GAD. Typically, GAD does not go away without treatment.

The consequences of GAD on a personal note can be quite devastating. People with GAD commonly experience difficulties with work, school, and their interpersonal lives; they express much less satisfaction with their lives as compared to individuals without GAD. People with GAD are at much higher risk to go on to suffer from other emotional disorders such as depression, drug & alcohol abuse, etc. The consequences of GAD can also be felt on a societal level. For example, individuals with GAD (compared to individuals without GAD) disproportionately utilize the health care system and generate more health care costs

Fear is an emotion we experience when we sense there is an immediate threat or imminent danger in our lives. When our bodies sense danger, a protective system, sometimes referred to as a “fight-or-flight” response, springs to action to help us take immediate action. Ordinarily, we calm down once a sense of safety has returned. Anxiety is a similar but separate emotion where we sense a threat or danger in the future or just on the horizon of our lives. Like fear, anxiety is a natural and usually healthy response to future threat or stressful situation–for if we take certain action, we may successfully prevent the circumstance from occurring. Worry is an activity related to anxiety. It’s a verbal/thinking activity often focused on the future especially with respect to negative outcomes we fear. For people with GAD, they constantly believe that bad things are going to happen even when the available facts indicate it’s unlikely to come to pass. People with GAD often indicate that worry is their way of mentally preparing for the worst or mentally problem-solving so that they find a response to actually prevent these feared future circumstances. Some people with GAD say that by worrying, it actually reduces the likelihood of something bad happening. Research has shown that the reason why worry becomes uncontrollable may be in that it keeps us from feeling the full impact of distressing situations, but they also do not get over those situations either. In essence, by worrying, we reduce how worked up we get, but those events stay with us that much longer. We are never able to “put them to bed.” Instead, they return more intensely than before causing us to worry even more, and we find ourselves in a viscous circle.

Fear is the emotion that arises when we sense immediate threat or danger for ourselves or loved ones. When fear arises and we feel “scared,” programming at the core of who we are as humans is activated to help us get in position to take the action needed to protect ourselves. It’s our brain’s way of getting the body ready. This response is often called “fight or flight.” When the danger has passed, our brain sends the “all clear” message and we begin to let down our guard and begin to relax once again.
Anxiety is an emotion closely related to fear, and is associated with a future sense of danger, misfortune, and dread. Like fear, anxiety has survival value by helping us prepare for this future we dread perhaps as a way to make it not come true or to make it’s impact is minimal as possible. After the anticipated danger passes, the brain once again signals the all clear, and our body’s respond by relaxing and getting on with life.
All emotions, even the ones we do not really wish upon ourselves, have their place in helping us survive and even thrive within society. Emotions send us signals about our needs and whether we want to spend time securing what we have in our lives or whether we want to add on to what we have and enhance our lives. Emotions tell us in different ways which direction to go in. If we allow them to run their course, they are over and done with rather quickly. Emotions are meant to be short acting messengers and motivators, and when their work is done, to subside and get out of the way

Worry is a common experience for all humans, but it is not the same thing as anxiety. Worry is one of the ways we respond to our anxiety, by influencing the choices we make to respond in an uncertain future. Many people who worry say that it helps them by spurring them to problem-solve, or as a way to magically ward off what we fear or prevent it from happening or for the sense of control and predictability it provides. While we are worrying, we may feel as though we are actively doing something to address our problems. However, the primary reason that people worry is actually, quite subtle. When we worry as a response to anxiety and fear, we gain some relief from our anxiety, at least for a short while, because worry acts almost like a tranquilizer in our bodies. It’s nature’s way of taking the edge off of our powerful emotions. Scientific studies, including ones that include brain scans, show that while we are worrying, thinking regions of our brain are very active, while the emotion regions are less active. So, worry appears to be an activity that all of us do as a tonic for our nerves, but HOW it’s working for us is not what it appears to be doing. The sneaky thing about worry is that every time we successfully dull or quiet our fear and anxiety, the more likely we are to utilize worry the next time. And before we know it, we’re hooked …worry becomes a habit or a way of life.

If worry truly is a way of dulling the intensity of our emotions, what’s so bad about that? Why NOT worry?
First, ALL emotions, including fear and anxiety, are vital to our survival and to offering us color and meaning to our lives. When we worry in response to anxiety, we begin to approach the world with thought but without emotion. We get up in our heads and spend time thinking about a variety of possible futures or dwelling on things that might have happened to us and wondering what those things will mean for our future, and guess, what? … we fail to see what’s happening around us in the here and now … in the present moment. Worry closes us off from the emotional side of ourselves.
Second, research convincingly shows that suppressing our emotions and not experience them, makes them come back more powerfully. That is, every time we exert effort NOT to have an emotion, it does subside for a while, but it keeps coming back, and often does so with greater intensity on every return trip. In this sense, worry serves to suppress our emotions or at least take the intensity or edge off of them, but we need to constantly go back to worry, and before we know it, we are devoting lots of time to worry.
Third, the more we worry, the more likely we are to make worry into a life style choice. We get a short-run benefit from worry in terms of sparing us from experiencing powerful emotions, but it has the potential to change the focus of our lives towards constantly looking out for our security instead of broadening and building our lives. Instead of fulfilling our aspirations, finding our prince charming or girl of our dreams, celebrating the lives of children, or whatever, we become a slave to our need for security.

Emotions can feel intense and painful, especially when they escalate. Ideally, we need ways to respond to our emotions besides worry and avoidance. The ability to reflect upon our emotions, understand what needs they are informing us about, utilize this emotional information if its indeed helpful, and improve our ability to know the best way to respond to our emotions may inevitably be the best ways we have to responding to times when we feel our intense and painful emotions.