Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Personality Style

Young boy with generalized anxiety disorder

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Anxiety disorders can be as diverse as the people they affect. How anxiety looks and feels for one person can be very different from the shape and form it takes for another. Part of the reason for these differences is that anxiety can be, in some ways, linked to individual personality.

For some people, anxiety is like a little pinch that propels them to do something they have been avoiding; while for others, it is an overwhelming crush of terror. For many, the experience of anxiety falls somewhere in between these extremes.

The potential explanations for what causes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are also varied. While biological explanations usually take center stage, researchers are finding that how we experience anxiety might also be related to our learned style of dealing with our feelings and the world around us.

Here's what you should know about how your personality might influence how you experience anxiety, as well as some tips for how to cope.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

A person who has generalized anxiety disorder experiences worry that is persistent, excessive, and intrusive. Some people develop GAD during childhood while others don't have symptoms until they are adults. Regardless of when it starts, people often experience GAD as a lifelong condition. It is also not unusual for it to cooccur with other mental health conditions, such as mood disorders.

Often, anxiety disorders (including GAD) can be managed with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Certain lifestyle changes, coping skills, and relaxation techniques can also be useful for some people with GAD.

Symptoms

There are many possible GAD symptoms. Some people will experience most of them while others will have just a few. Some of your anxiety symptoms might be mild and fairly easy for you to cope with, while others might be intense and even make it difficult for you to function in your day-to-day life.

Symptoms you might have if you have generalized anxiety include:

  • Carrying every option in a given situation all the way out to its possible (negative) conclusion
  • Difficulty concentrating or the feeling that your mind "goes blank"
  • Difficulty handling uncertainty or indecisiveness
  • Distress about making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision
  • Inability to relax, restlessness, and feeling "keyed up" or "on edge"
  • Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
  • Persistent worrying or obsession with small or large concerns that is out of proportion to the impact of the event
  • Worrying about excessively worrying

Anxiety is not "all in your head." Many people also feel anxiety in their bodies. Some people have physical signs and symptoms of anxiety, such as:

  • Being easily startled
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal upset (such as nausea and diarrhea)
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension or muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or feeling "twitchy"
  • Trouble sleeping

The Link Between Personality and Anxiety

Mental health conditions like anxiety are usually multifactorial—which means there is not just one cause, but typically many factors, that contribute. It's believed that biological and genetic influences can have a strong influence on conditions like anxiety, but mental health professionals also tend to find that it is worth exploring how a person first learned to deal with the world to uncover additional contributing factors.

For example, if someone is taught (either directly or indirectly) that feelings of anxiety tend to encourage them to produce successful outcomes or that it is the "default" feeling to experience, then anxiety can easily become part of their disposition. It then will influence how they deal with work, relationships, and other aspects of their lives.

In this sense, anxiety can be thought of as a personality trait or even a personality style. On the other hand, research has also indicated that having certain personality traits (including social inhibition, emotional instability, and introversion) can make it more likely that someone will develop an anxiety disorder.

Trait Anxiety vs. State Anxiety

Researchers sometimes use the terms "trait anxiety" and "state anxiety" when they are discussing the influence of personality on mental health. For example, a person who has trait anxiety might feel anxious more often and more intensely than people who do not. State anxiety, on the other hand, is when a person feels anxious about a specific situation that they are in—it is a temporary "state" of anxiety as opposed to the persistent trait of being anxious.

How Different Personality Types Handle Anxiety

Everyone, regardless of their underlying personality type, experiences anxiety at one time or another. However, a person's personality might influence how anxiety feels to them as well as how they deal with it.

While there are many variations of personality and no two people are exactly alike in how they experience and respond to the world, there are four personality categories that are often discussed. These types exist on a spectrum that most people can find themselves on somewhere—even if they're somewhat "in the middle" rather than at one end or the other.

These are just a few broad examples of how certain personality traits or dispositions might influence the way you experience anxiety as well as how you cope with it.

There are many more personality variations than type A or type B and introversion or extroversion, but these are four categories that are most people are familiar with and can provide an illustration of how personality can influence the experience of anxiety.

Type A

People with a "type A" personality are generally described as being high-achievers, competitive, organized, ambitious, and (at times) impatient and aggressive. Some psychological researchers use the term "neurotic" or "neuroticism" to describe the behaviors and tendencies of people with type A personalities.

People who are type A personalities are often described as "workaholics." In some cases, being under pressure or stress is motivating for people with this personality type—though, at the same time, research has shown that this personality type is more likely to have job-related stress than other types, and might not be that satisfied with their work (even if they are succeeding or achieving).

When under stress, type A personalities might be more likely than other personality types to engage in self-defeating behaviors, such as procrastination or poor lifestyle habits. In a sense, when type A personalities become overwhelmed, they can "get in their own way" if their anxiety goes unchecked.

Research has found that type A personalities are more likely to develop stress-related illnesses than other types. This risk is believed to a direct consequence of their dominant emotions, behaviors, and coping mechanisms, which tend to raise the level of stress hormones in their bodies.

Type B

At the opposite end of the spectrum from high-alert, high-stress, and hypervigilant type As are the laid-back, low-stress, and less competitive "type B" personalities. In almost every way type A's opposite, type B personalities tend to carry on with their work and often succeed without being as strongly focused on achievement or "winning."

Type Bs report less stress in all areas of their lives—not just at work—and tend to be more tolerant and patient with the people around them than type As. However, it's not always rosy for type Bs. Some research has found that they are more likely to have substance use disorders than type As.

Studies have also demonstrated that a core difference between type As and type Bs is how they define success—which, for many people, can be tied to anxious feelings. Likely because they are inherently more competitive, type A personalities tend to have higher criteria for defining what it means to succeed than type Bs.

As they work toward achievement, type As have been found to use strategies that let them internalize success while externalizing failure (in other words, placing the blame for the failure on an outside factor rather than seeing it as a reflection of themselves) more so than type Bs.

When under stress, type B personalities have also found to be more likely to take preventative steps or precautions compared to type A personalities.

Introversion vs. Extroversion

The primary difference between introverts and extroverts comes down to a person's preference for becoming energized.

A person who is introverted needs time alone to "recharge" away from social activity, but this does not necessarily mean that they dislike being around others.

Conversely, extroverts get their energy from being around others—though that does not mean that they never want to have time alone.

Introverts

People who are introverted tend to need time alone to process their experience of themselves and the world around them. When they are under a great deal of stress, being forced to be in a social setting can be extremely challenging and exhausting.

Introverts need to have time away from others to reflect, recharge, and potentially even reframe their feelings, perceptions, experiences, and thoughts. If they do not get this time (or don't get enough of it), they are less likely to function optimally.

When overwhelmed by a stressor or source of conflict, introverts are more likely to use avoidance coping mechanisms than extroverts. While retreating from a stressful event might provide some short-term relief, it does not tend to be an effective way to cope.

However, research has also indicated that introverted personalities often report that they often reach out to mental health professionals or engage in healthy behaviors to relieve their stress, such as exercise.

Extroverts

People who are extroverted find that being around others gives them energy. They find that engaging in social activity is essential to their experience of themselves, the world, and their relationships with the people around them.

If extroverts are isolated from others, it can be difficult for them to get what they need to process experiences and feelings. If they are under a great deal of stress, having too much time alone or not being able to reach out and be with others can make it much more difficult for them to function.

Research has found that extroverts tend to have an easier time relaxing than introverts. Several studies have hypothesized that the neural structure of an extrovert's brain is "wired" to relax more quickly from a state of arousal than an introvert's brain—which can be extremely helpful in times of stress.

Extroverts are also more likely to confront problems than introverts, and while this can certainly lead to conflict, addressing the source of stress can also be a healthy coping mechanism.

While personality can influence how stress feels to you as well as what methods of coping are effective, there are also other variables. Research has also found that sex, gender, age, intellect, experiences, and other elements of who are as an individual shape your stress response.

For example, how likely you are to take risks, how comfortable you are with uncertainty, how open you are with new experiences (and how often you seek them out), and how conscientious you are toward others can also influence your response to anxiety.

When Anxiety Is Not Anxiety

Sometimes, other emotions are disguised as anxiety, or anxiety is experienced in place of another emotion. Three of the most common feelings that can be disguised by anxiety are anger, guilt, and grief. For example, for many people, anxiety is part of their fear response.

If someone is having feelings that are uncomfortable or difficult to express, these emotions might also be transformed into anxiety. Many people struggle to absorb, process, express, and understand these feelings and honor their intent (to express dislike, ask for forgiveness, accept a loss, etc.). Instead, a person might become focused on (and anxious about) specific aspects of a situation (such as every detail of how an upcoming event might go).

In reality, being preoccupied and worried about the fine details of something that is causing someone anxiety is not as important as addressing their underlying feelings—however messy, difficult, and uncomfortable they might be.

What You Can Do

If you are experiencing the confusion of your emotions and anxiety (which include a subset of people with GAD), the first step is looking within yourself to find out what feelings are being disguised by anxiety.

Then, you also need to figure out if certain aspects of your personality (including learned behaviors and poor coping mechanisms) are contributing to the confusion and whether or not these are things you can (and are ready to) work on.

Both of these goals are often part of the treatment for GAD. If they resonate with you, it's worth asking your healthcare provider or mental health professional about how you can address your anxiety.

There are different modalities of treatment for anxiety disorders, and some of them might appeal to you more than others. Developing an understanding of how certain aspects of your personality might be affecting your anxiety can help you choose a method to try. Discuss your unique traits, tendencies, and preferences with your provider as you consider different options for treating your anxiety.

If you or a loved one are struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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