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Signs “Bad Nerves” Might Actually be Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Signs “Bad Nerves” Might Actually be Generalized Anxiety Disorder

By Autumn Collier, LCSW


We’ve all been there, butterflies in the stomach, palms begin to sweat, and just feeling on edge. This may happen right before giving a big speech, before stepping up to the plate in the bottom of the 9th, or while leisurely walking around the mall. Throughout my years, I’ve heard many older adults say “oh no, I don’t drive on the expressway, I got bad nerves” or “I didn’t sleep good last night, I got bad nerves”. I always knew what they meant, but as I reached adulthood, I wondered if they knew they were feeling anxious.


Feeling on edge or anxious does not mean you have an anxiety disorder. You can experience feelings of anxiety without having a disorder. There are many disorders that fall under the category of Anxiety Disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder to name a few. They all share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances.


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition, many individuals with generalized anxiety disorder report they have felt anxious and nervous all of their lives. The average age at onset for generalized anxiety disorder is 30 years. Onset of the disorder rarely occurs prior to adolescence. Rates of full remission of the disorder are very low, however, individuals can live comfortably and manage their symptoms.


Generalized anxiety disorder looks the same in children and adults, however, the content of the individual’s worry is the primary difference in terms of how symptoms and behaviors are expressed. Children and adolescents tend to worry more about the quality of their performance or competence at school or in sporting events, even when their performance is not being judged by others. They may also worry about catastrophic events such as earthquakes or nuclear war. Youth with generalized anxiety disorder may be overly conforming, perfectionist, and unsure of themselves and tend to redo tasks because of excessive dissatisfaction with less-than-perfect-performance. Older adults tend to worry about the well-being of family or their own physical health.


Gender seems to play a role in the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder as females are twice as likely as males to experience the disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition. However, both men and women experience similar symptoms of the disorder.


In the United States, generalized anxiety disorder accounts for 110 million disability days per year. Here are the signs and symptoms that “bad nerves” might actually be generalized anxiety disorder:


  1. You may experience excessive worry about a number of events such as work or school performance or impending doom. This occurs more days than not for at least six months.
  2. You find it difficult to control the worry. It seems no matter what you do you cannot shake it and continuously worry, even if you know your worrying is irrational.
  3. You experience three or more of the following (only one for children) more days than not: Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep).
  4. The worry and anxiety or physical symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in your social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. There needs to be some significant disruption in your daily functioning.


In addition to these four criteria, what you’re experiencing cannot be attributable to a medical condition (e.g. hyperthyroidism) or effects of a substance (e.g. drugs or medication) or better explained by another mental disorder.


Generalized anxiety disorder is highly treatable with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. Anxiety involves a lot of future thinking, “what’s ifs”, and attempts to try to control the future. Recognizing our thoughts as irrational and faulty begins the healing process. Seek treatment with a mental health professional to help overcome this prevalent and treatable disorder.



The content on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat, it is for informational purposes only. Please call our office at 404-618-1040 for an appointment or contact a mental health professional in your local area if you are seeking treatment.

Autumn Collier

Autumn Collier, LCSW is a psychotherapist at Collier Counseling, LLC in Atlanta, GA. She works with women in their 20's and 30's that are entering a new phase of their life (i.e. career, relationship, parenthood) and experience anxiety and depression. ​Email: autumn@colliercounselingllc.com

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