By William Meek (From Very Well Mind Website) 

Anxiety is a common secondary emotion. A secondary emotion is one that is experienced in place of another emotion that is difficult for the person to feel or express. For men, anger is often a cover for jealousy, hurt, disappointment, embarrassment, and sadness. For women, anxiety tends to often function in the same way. Theoretically, this way of defending ourselves protects us from having to deal with the more complicated and difficult feelings. Therefore, we can easily make a mistake thinking that a situation or occurrence has made us anxious or angry when in fact the true emotion is something different.

For people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), this can become very complicated. Most of life is experienced as anxiety, and it is a relatively expected and familiar feeling.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with chronic anxiety and worry that is uncontrollable and cause significant life problems often get diagnosed with GAD. People with GAD tend to have some sort of disposition to experience the world in a way that is anxiety-provoking, and most of their life experience is seen through this lens.

GAD symptoms can vary. They may include:

  • Persistent worrying or obsession about small or large concerns that are 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 of GAD can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension or muscle aches
  • Trembling, feeling twitchy
  • Being easily startled
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Headaches

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.

Understanding Other Emotions

In trying to understand what feelings (primary emotions) could be underneath your anxiety, the first thing to do is actually ask yourself that question. If you allow yourself to be open to the possibility that you are hurt, disappointed or grieving, rather than anxious, you are taking great leaps forward in understanding yourself, having greater emotional intelligence and having the ability to make efforts to improve your situation based on other underlying feelings.

If you are left with some sort of fear, then your anxiety is likely in the right place. Give this a try and see if it can reduce your worry, and help you make life changes that will actually alleviate the true negative feelings you have, rather than miss your experience and cause continued worry for “no reason,” as many people with GAD tend to do.

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