Generalized anxiety disorder: symptoms, causes, & treatments

By

Walter Alejos

|

June 29, 2021

woman in park smiling after treatment for generalized anxiety disorder symptoms
Anxiety is a normal part of being alive, but if you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the everyday stress of life can feel like too much.

Life is full of stressors—from personal disappointments to global conflicts. It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time, especially when we’re reminded of how uncertain so much of life really is. For most people, feelings of stress ebb and flow as the circumstances change, but everyday stressors can become overwhelming for people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Minor problems throughout your day may take on a significance that’s out of proportion. If you find yourself worrying so often that it interferes with healthy functioning, you may be experiencing GAD.

For people with anxiety and depression, purposefully engaging in pleasurable activities can improve mental health.
Anxiety is a normal part of being alive, but if you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the everyday stress of life can feel like too much.

Life is full of stressors—from personal disappointments to global conflicts. It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time, especially when we’re reminded of how uncertain so much of life really is. For most people, feelings of stress ebb and flow as the circumstances change, but everyday stressors can become overwhelming for people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Minor problems throughout your day may take on a significance that’s out of proportion. If you find yourself worrying so often that it interferes with healthy functioning, you may be experiencing GAD.

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Some forms of anxiety, like specific phobias, separation anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, involve fears about a particular situation or object. Generalized anxiety disorder is different because it centers around a general sense of unease.

You may worry about everyday stressors, or you may worry about bad things that could happen. In particular, many people with GAD feel an impending sense of danger or doom without an apparent cause.

When left untreated, GAD may interfere with your relationships and your ability to work or study. In addition to emotional disturbances, generalized anxiety disorder causes physical symptoms that can negatively impact your long-term health.

Many people with generalized anxiety disorder also have another mental illness, such as major depressive disorderpanic disorder, or addiction.

Statistics

Symptoms

Generalized anxiety disorder has milder symptoms than other forms of anxiety, such as panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clinicians only categorize GAD as a medical condition if your symptoms persist for 6 months or more.

The most common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder are:

  • Restlessness or edginess
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbances

In addition to the primary generalized anxiety disorder symptoms, you may also experience the following physical symptoms:

Causes

Although researchers don’t understand the exact cause of generalized anxiety disorder, it probably shares a physiological foundation with other anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is a complex biological response to perceived danger. Although many contributing factors impact how you interpret a threatening situation, both brain chemistry and genetics likely play a significant role in anxiety disorders like this one.

The following risk factors may contribute to anxiety.

Other mental health disorders

You’re more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder if you experience another mental health condition, such as clinical depression or panic disorder.

Family history

If someone in your immediate family has had an anxiety disorder or another mental illness, it increases the likelihood that you’ll be diagnosed with GAD.

Trauma

People with a history of childhood trauma or traumatic life events are more likely to develop anxiety symptoms and disorders as adults.

Persistent stress

Chronic stress taxes the body’s immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and central nervous systems and can increase your risk of anxiety disorders.

Personality

You may have personality traits that make you more susceptible to stressors and extreme anxiety.

Drug and alcohol abuse

Having addiction or dependency issues with alcohol or other substances makes you more likely to experience a second mental health condition.

Diagnosis

If you think you may have GAD, you should consider seeing a mental health professional for an evaluation.

You’ll probably be asked to answer questions designed to identify issues like depression or addiction that could influence your diagnosis. Your health care provider may also ask about your family history, physical health, and any medications you take. This will help rule out other medical conditions that may be contributing to your symptoms.

Your clinician will diagnose you using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). This diagnostic guidebook, used by all medical professionals in North America, lists 6 symptoms for generalized anxiety disorder.

Again, those symptoms are:

  • Restlessness or edginess
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbances

To receive a GAD diagnosis, you must display 3 of the 6 primary symptoms. Your anxiety symptoms must also persist over a 6-month period and cause clinically significant impairment.

Prevention

Although it’s not possible to prevent GAD completely, you can take precautions that reduce your risk factors and bolster your mental health.

Avoid addictive substances

Substance abuse can add significant stress to your life. Caffeine and alcohol, in particular, are known to aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.

Treat mental health conditions

Seek treatment for mental health conditions. Addressing the symptoms of other mental illnesses may reduce your feelings of stress and anxiety.

Meditate

Not only does meditation combat stress in the moment, but relaxation techniques and mindful breathing can help you learn how to avoid a physiological stress response in emotionally challenging situations.

Eat well

Maintaining a well-balanced diet, including complex carbs, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats, can help prevent brain fatigue and mood swings.

Get enough sleep

When you sleep at least 7 hours of sleep a night, you’re better able to keep up with the cognitive processing you do throughout the day. Getting enough sleep is also one of the most important ways to take care of your mental health.

Learn more about the 8 common causes of insomnia & what to do about them.

Treatment

Treatment for generalized anxiety disorder usually involves psychotherapy and medication. With proper treatment, you may be able to reduce or completely eliminate GAD symptoms.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help you to get to the root of your worries and fears. Different therapeutic approaches include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Supportive therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychodynamic or insight-oriented psychotherapy
  • Mindfulness-based approaches
  • Acceptance commitment therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a first-line treatment for the treatment of anxiety. You can use it to modify the thought processes and behaviors, including negative thought patternscatastrophizing, avoidance, and more.

Your clinician may also prescribe a generalized anxiety disorder medication to reduce your symptoms.

The following meds are commonly prescribed for GAD:

Antidepressants

A doctor may prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) as a long-term treatment for anxiety symptoms. This includes meds like:

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Citalopram (Celexa)

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) may also be prescribed for this purpose. These include meds like duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR).

Your clinician may also prescribe atypical antidepressants and mirtazapine (Remeron).

Meet with a medical professional online to see if antidepressants are right for you.

Anti-anxiety medications

Anti-anxiety meds like benzodiazepines are helpful in the short-term treatment of anxiety. These are meds like:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)

Although these medications are not safe for long-term use, they can reduce your GAD symptoms right away. Lemonaid Health doesn’t prescribe these meds.

Buspirone (BuSpar) works differently than benzodiazepines. You can use it for both long- and short-term treatment of anxiety without the potential for addiction.

Outlook

Generalized anxiety disorder may continue to worsen without treatment. The condition can last for years and, in some patients, the symptoms lead to lifelong challenges. A stressful life event or transition can also trigger increased symptoms of anxiety.

For example, chronic and persistent anxiety can contribute to wide-ranging physical issues. GAD is highly prevalent in people with coronary artery disease and heart problems.

But there’s good news: the outlook for GAD is extremely positive with the proper treatment. For patients who seek treatment, 50% improve within 3 weeks of starting. Within 9 months, 77% see an improvement.

Talk with a medical professional now to see what kind of treatment would be best for you.

Takeaway

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) causes persistent feelings of anxiety that are out of proportion to stressors.
  • You cannot prevent GAD, but you may be able to eliminate some of your risk factors.
  • With proper treatment, the majority of patients with GAD can reduce or eliminate symptoms.

Statistics

  1. The American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2021). Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad
  3. Celano et al. (2016). Anxiety Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-016-0739-5
  4. Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). Generalized anxiety disorderhttps://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/generalized-anxiety-disorder
  5. Hirschfeld (2001). The Comorbidity of Major Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Recognition and Management in Primary Carehttps://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v03n0609
  6. Khan & Khan (2017). Chronic Stress Leads to Anxiety and Depression. https://www.jscimedcentral.com/Psychiatry/psychiatry-5-1091.pdf
  7. The National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/index.shtml
  8. Zbozinek et al. (2012). Diagnostic overlap of generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder in a primary care sample. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22026

By

Walter Alejos

|

June 29, 2021