As I was listening to a podcast the other day, I heard the mom of a troubled young man mention that when her son was 10, a therapist had diagnosed him with what the mom called “the very vague ‘general anxiety disorder.'” She said it with a dismissive, frustrated tone that conveyed her belief that the diagnosis had been meaningless and useless. She went on to talk about her son’s various behavioural issues in the years that followed, without mentioning his original diagnosis again. I was saddened and somewhat alarmed that this child’s own mother didn’t seem to understand what Generalized Anxiety Disorder is (or even what it’s actually called). Whether that was a result of her own misunderstanding or an inept therapist, I don’t know. I wondered if her and her son’s story would have gone any differently if it could have been accurately conveyed to her at the time of that diagnosis what Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is, and that it’s a real psychiatric disorder with real impacts (but also that it can be treated).
I’ve talked before about what GAD is (plus the explanation of GAD is right up there in my main blog menu), but I think it bears repeating, because it seems like such a common misconception. Generalized Anxiety Disorder is not “general anxiety disorder” (that’s not even a thing). Generalized Anxiety Disorder is not some poorly-defined, “we’re not sure what kind of anxiety it is so we’ll call it this” diagnosis. It’s a specific type of anxiety.
Let’s first get down to what the word “generalized” means. In this context, the definition (from the Collins English Dictionary) is “involving many different things, rather than one or two specific things.” So at the risk of oversimplifying the experience of GAD, generalized anxiety means you’re not anxious about one thing, it means you’re anxious about everything.
Here’s my explanation of GAD from my blog post from last February, “Black Oil (or Putting the ‘Generalized’ into Generalized Anxiety Disorder).”
Before I was diagnosed last year with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I thought that particular condition sounded pretty vague and possibly slightly made-up. I think it was the “Generalized” part – it implied to me that the anxiety was diffuse and therefore probably fairly mild. I came to learn that “Generalized” actually refers to the fact that the excessive (and sometimes debilitating) anxiety experienced by people with GAD is connected to many different issues or activities, as opposed to being consistently focused on one specific situation (whereas people with Social Anxiety Disorder, for example, have their anxiety triggered specifically by social situations).
As an example, here’s what GAD looks like for me, as discussed in that same post.
So this means my anxiety can come at me from any number of ever-changing sources. Maybe this week I’m preoccupied with the idea that I have some sort of physical illness. Then the next week, I’m scared that my marriage might be in trouble. Then maybe I start to obsessively wonder if I’m on the right anxiety medication, should I be advancing in my therapy more quickly, and have I even been diagnosed correctly?? (Indeed, I’m well aware of the irony of my anxiety disorder causing me to question the accuracy of the diagnosis of said disorder). None of these worries have a rational basis. But my brain doesn’t seem to care about that.
(If you like, you can get all the official details about GAD at the website of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.)
And yes, it’s a serious illness with real-life consequences. For me, that includes physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, and back pain. And life impacts like an avoidance of travel, deciding to work part-time instead of full-time, and the stress my struggles puts on my marriage. For some people, the consequences of GAD are as serious as it gets: a recent Canadian study concluded that people with GAD were more likely to have suicidal thoughts than people who don’t. That’s definitely not a disorder to be dismissed. At the same time, though, there are good treatments available for GAD once it’s correctly diagnosed and taken seriously (I’ve improved a lot since I started seeing my psychiatrist last year).
I really shouldn’t be too critical of people who misunderstand GAD, though. After all, I was one myself, before I was diagnosed. Sometimes I just wish GAD had a different name. The one I made up for myself one day was “pervasive anxiety disorder,” ie. a disorder of being anxious a lot of the time and in many situations. But I imagine that’s not the correct medical language, whereas “generalized ” is. It just doesn’t translate especially well to the layperson. But that’s where mental health education comes in, and where people like me (and maybe like you) can make our contribution by taking whatever opportunity we can to explain our condition to folks who may be a bit less informed than we are (than we’ve had to be).