Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common anxiety disorder characterized by persistent and excessive worry about multiple topics, events, or activities. Excessive anxiety and worry are difficult to control and cause significant distress or impairment.
GAD affects approximately 9% of the population at some point in their lives. Understanding generalized anxiety disorder including its symptoms, causes, and treatments is helpful for those suffering from this condition.
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Generalized anxiety disorder differs from normal anxiety or everyday stress in a few key ways:
- The worries are excessive, unrealistic, uncontrollable, and disproportionate to actual events.
- The anxiety focuses on multiple topics including health, finances, relationships, work/school performance, and minor matters.
- The anxiety persists chronically on most days for at least 6 months.
- The anxiety and worry cause significant distress and interfere with daily life and functioning.
- Physical symptoms like fatigue, restlessness, muscle tension, and sleep issues often accompany the mental aspects.
GAD often co-occurs with other mental health issues like depression, panic disorder, substance abuse, and phobias.
Generalized anxiety usually begins gradually in childhood or adolescence and tends to be chronic unless treated. It is more common in women and often leads to substantial impairment in school, work, relationships, and overall well-being.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
People with GAD exhibit both mental and physical anxiety symptoms. Common symptoms include:
Excessive worry about everyday issues that are difficult to control – This could include anything related to health, finances, work, school, family life, relationships, current events, safety, and more. The anxiety persists even with no real reason to be anxious.
Feeling agitated or restless – Having sensations of internal tension or feeling keyed up and on edge much of the time.
Fatigue – The chronic worry is exhausting and those with GAD often feel tired, depleted, and mentally drained.
Irritability – Increased impatience and quickness to get annoyed or agitated.
Muscle tension – Stiff or sore muscles, jaw clenching, muscle aches, or back pain.
Difficulty concentrating – Trouble focusing on tasks due to distracted thoughts.
Difficulty sleeping – Trouble falling or staying asleep due to a racing mind.
Headaches – Chronic tension headaches are common.
Trembling, sweating, nausea, diarrhea – Autonomic arousal symptoms.
Difficulty controlling the anxiety – The excessive worries and associated symptoms feel unmanageable.
The symptoms are present most days for at least 6 months and cause significant personal distress or interference with normal functioning. The anxiety must not be due to another disorder or medical issue.
What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
The exact causes are unknown but likely involve a combination of factors including:
Brain chemistry – Those with GAD appear to have a dysregulation in neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and serotonin that control mood and anxiety.
Genetics – Having a close family member with generalized anxiety disorder increases your risk. It is somewhat heritable.
Childhood experiences – Exposure to neglect, abuse, family instability, or an overly anxious caregiver can contribute to developing anxiety disorders.
Trauma – Stressful events or trauma such as major losses, accidents, disasters, or abuse can trigger excessive worry.
Personality – Being highly sensitive, emotional, perfectionistic, approval-seeking, or avoidant of uncertainty is linked to anxiety susceptibility.
Medical factors – Medical conditions, medications, or drug/alcohol abuse may produce anxiety symptoms.
Thinking patterns – Cognitive distortions, racing thoughts, poor coping skills, and negative outlooks can perpetuate anxiety.
While the exact underpinnings are complex, generalized anxiety seems to arise from biological and environmental interactions. Identifying potential contributing and triggering factors can help guide treatment approaches.
Treatments For Generalized Anxiety Disorder
If struggling with GAD, it is important to seek professional help. Counseling and medication are effective treatment options:
- Identify, challenge, and replace anxious thinking patterns
- Develop relaxation techniques
- Tolerate uncertainty without catastrophizing
- Reduce avoidance behaviors
- Manage anxiety through calming self-talk
- Build coping strategies for anxiety triggers
Other approaches like acceptance commitment therapy, mindfulness, and stress management training can also be beneficial. Therapy provides long-term skills to better manage anxiety.
Antidepressants are usually prescribed since anxiety and depression often co-occur. First-line options are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like sertraline, escitalopram, paroxetine, and fluoxetine.
SNRIs like duloxetine and venlafaxine are alternatives. Beta-blockers like propranolol help calm autonomic arousal symptoms. Anti-anxiety drugs can provide short-term relief but have risks of dependency. Always discuss medication pros, cons, and side effects with your doctor.
Other tips that may help are regular exercise, sufficient sleep, healthy eating, social connection, meditation, journaling, and joining a support group. Seek treatment early and be open to trying different approaches to determine the most effective relief.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a recognizable psychiatric condition causing excessive, chronic worry that dominates daily life. It arises from a complex interplay of biological and environmental factors.
Typical symptoms include constant unrealistic worrying, restlessness, irritability, trouble concentrating, sleep issues, and physical symptoms like muscle tension, headaches, nausea, and fatigue.
Through psychotherapy, medication, lifestyle changes, and support systems, most people with GAD can manage their anxiety and regain their quality of life. Identifying and treating this disorder early is key to preventing long-term suffering and impaired functioning.