Anxiety and Personality Style

Anxiety as a Disguise for Other Emotions

Woman looking worried. Credit: Tara Moore

Anxiety and personality style are sometimes linked. Anxiety can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavors. Sometimes anxiety is like a little pinch that can propel you to do something you've been avoiding, and sometimes it can be an overwhelming crush of terror. But most of the time it is somewhere in between. There is an array of explanations for what causes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

One that gets overshadowed by biological explanations is that anxiety can be a learned style for how someone deals with feelings and the world.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Some people develop GAD as a child while others do not see symptoms until they are an adult. Either way, living with GAD can last a long time. In many cases, it occurs along with other anxiety or mood disorders. In most cases, it improves with medications or talk therapy (psychotherapy). Making lifestyle changes, learning coping skills and using relaxation techniques also can help.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD symptoms can include:

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

Physical signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension or muscle aches
  • Trembling, feeling twitchy
  • Being easily startled
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Headaches

Personality Style

Although there may always be some biological/genetic influence in how psychological problems develop, exploring how a person first learned to deal with the world can also uncover contributing factors. If someone was taught either directly or indirectly that becoming anxious helps produce successful outcomes or is the "default" feeling to experience, anxiety could easily become part of a person's disposition in dealing with work, relationships, the future, etc. In this sense, anxiety can be thought of as a personality trait or even a personality style.

Disguise for Other Feelings

Anxiety can also often be experienced in place of other feelings. For most people, anxiety is part of experiencing fear. However, feelings that are uncomfortable or difficult to express can be transformed into anxiety. Three of the most common feelings that can be disguised by anxiety are anger, guilt and grief.



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.) In turn, they can become anxious about the same situations or things that may seem less deserving of attention (e.g. every detail of how an event will go).

What Can be Done?

People with these experiences, which includes a subset of people with GAD, must look within themselves to see what real feelings exist and may be disguised by anxiety. They must also determine whether or not changing an uncomfortable part of their personality may be something to try. Both of these can become part of treatment for GAD, and you should ask your provider about these if they resonate for you.

Reference:

Mayo Clinic. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/basics/definition/con-20024562

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