What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and How Is It Treated?

Medically Reviewed By Matthew Boland, PhD
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Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health condition that involves excessive worry and anxiety. It can often interfere with your daily life and relationships. GAD is a type of anxiety disorder. It typically involves a persistent feeling of anxiety or anticipation of an impending catastrophe.

This is more than just worrying about everyday issues, though that may be part of the worry you experience. GAD can affect your day-to-day activities and how you live your life.

This article defines GAD and discusses its symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Young woman lying in a web-like shadow
Lyuba Burakova/Stocksy United

GAD is an anxiety disorder that involves persistent anxiety and dread. These feelings tend to be overwhelming, and they can affect the way you live your life.

GAD affects approximately 3.1% of people in the United States in any given year. Females are more likely to receive a diagnosis of GAD than males.

This disorder tends to develop gradually. It can begin at any stage in life, though it tends to appear more commonly between childhood and middle age.

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. It is a typical response to certain situations. Without GAD, these feelings of anxiety tend to decrease after you are out of that situation.

For those with GAD, however, the feeling of anxiety is persistent and chronic. It can also come on all of a sudden. People with GAD can experience this type of anxiety for months or even years.

Is it serious?

Although GAD is not generally physically serious or dangerous, it can directly affect your daily life. It can keep you from thriving at work, enjoying social situations, and experiencing things you might otherwise want to do. It can also keep you in a state of rumination and distraction.

If you are frequently anxious and it has started to affect your day-to-day life, contact your doctor.

What does generalized anxiety disorder feel like?

The word “anxiety” describes feelings of nervousness, concern, fear, apprehension, restlessness, and worry. Ordinarily, these feelings serve as an alarm system for our bodies to alert us to possible danger.

In these situations, your heartbeat might quicken, and your palms may get sweaty. Sometimes, these feelings of anxiety are your body’s way of telling you to get out of a dangerous situation. However, they can also be a push that you need to get a big project done or to experience something new.

These occasional times of anxiety attached to a specific situation are typical. They are a part of life.

However, those with GAD tend to have an ongoing sense of anxiety that is not related to any single situation. For example, someone with GAD may constantly worry about something that is highly unlikely to happen. This worry then begins to interfere with their everyday life.

There are many different symptoms, both physical and psychological, t

hat occur with GAD.

Physical symptoms

GAD can manifest as physical signs and symptoms that include:

Psychological symptoms

The psychological symptoms of GAD include:

Warning signs

Some warning signs that you may be developing GAD include:

  • withdrawing from loved ones
  • avoiding certain situations
  • feeling unable to go to work
  • consistently feeling anxious
  • continuously thinking about what might happen
  • continuously ruminating on how you might handle everyday events
  • making frequent or excessive attempts to prepare for situations in order to avoid an anticipated catastrophe

Visit our mental health and behavior hub here.

Examples of generalized anxiety disorder

Having a certain amount of worry in life is typical. However, the difference between typical worry and GAD is that the latter is intrusive, persistent, and disruptive to your daily life.

Typical worryGAD
Your worries do not affect or get in the way of your activities and responsibilities.Your worries greatly disrupt your social life, family life, and work life.
Your worries do not cause significant distress.Your worries are extremely upsetting, stressful, and distressing.
You are able to control your worries. Your worries are uncontrollable.
Your episodes of worry only last a short time.Your episodes of worry are frequent and can last for months.
Your worries are limited to specific concerns.Your worries are about anything and tend to lean toward expecting the worst.

Causes of generalized anxiety disorder

The exact cause of GAD is unknown. However, there are factors that may influence the development of this anxiety disorder. These include:

  • Family: Anxiety may be an inherited trait. The family environment can also influence the development of GAD.
  • Personality: Some believe that people who were more reserved and inhibited as children may have a higher likelihood of developing GAD. It is also thought that personality traits such as shyness and emotional sensitivity can make worrying more likely.
  • Learned behavior: Habitual ways of thinking are learned over many years and are influenced by environmental, familial, and social aspects. These ways of thinking are sometimes reinforced and solidified over time based on your previous experiences.

Diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder

If you experience prolonged anxiety or any of the other symptoms of GAD, you should contact your doctor.

To diagnose your condition, your doctor will ask you questions about:

  • any symptoms you have, both physical and psychological, and how long you have experienced them for
  • your personal life
  • your worries, fears, and concerns

Talking about your thoughts and feelings with your doctor can feel uncomfortable. However, it is important to be open and honest with them to receive a proper diagnosis.

Your doctor may request blood tests or other tests to rule out underlying conditions for your symptoms, such as a deficiency in iron or vitamin B12, hypertension, or hyperthyroidism.

Your doctor may also refer you to a mental health professional to confirm the diagnosis and help create a treatment plan.

Treatment of generalized anxiety disorder

There are many different ways to treat GAD. You should work closely with your doctor and mental health professional to choose the treatments that are best for you.

Medical and psychological

Medical treatments are some of the most common options for GAD. These treatments include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), support groups, and

medications.

It is important to work closely with your doctor and mental health professional to develop the right treatment plan for you.

Psychotherapy

Also called “talk therapy,” psychotherapy is known as a useful treatment for people with anxiety disorders, including GAD.

It takes place with a licensed mental health professional in either a one-on-one setting or in a group. Psychotherapy is often the only treatment needed, but your doctor may choose to combine it with other treatments such as medication.

In order for it to be most effective, psychotherapy needs to focus on your specific anxieties and be tailored to your needs.

CBT

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help people with anxiety disorders. Using the methods of CBT can help you learn different ways of behaving, thinking, and reacting to anxiety-inducing objects and situations.

CBT emphasizes helping people become their own therapists. It focuses on what is happening in a person’s life now, not what led up to them beginning the therapy. Although a mental health professional will ask a certain amount of questions about your history, CBT attempts to help you move forward and develop more effective ways to cope with life.

Support groups

Some people with anxiety disorders such as GAD have found support groups helpful as a part of their treatment plan. Joining a support group, or self-help group, allows you to share your problems and achievements with others.

Generally, support groups are available both in person and online.

It is important to remember that any advice given in a support group should be used cautiously and should never replace the treatment plan set out by your healthcare team.

Medications

Medications cannot cure anxiety disorders, but they can help with the symptoms. The most common medications prescribed for GAD and other anxiety disorders are antianxiety drugs, antidepressants, and beta-blockers.

Some medications work better for specific types of anxiety disorders than others. You should work closely with your doctor to choose the type of medication and dosage that works best for you.

Certain substances — such as caffeine, over-the-counter cold medications, illegal drugs, and herbal supplements — can have negative interactions with these medications or make your anxiety worse on their own. Discuss these interactions with your doctor, and always follow their guidance.

Side effects of medical treatments

There are potential side effects to any medication you may take. You should discuss possible side effects with your doctor before you begin taking your prescribed medications.

Possible side effects of the most common medications prescribed for GAD include:

Some people, especially those under the age of 25 years, can experience an increase in suicidal thoughts just after beginning an antidepressant medication or having a dosage change.

Because of this, people — no matter their age — are often kept under close supervision by their doctor while they begin treatment with antidepressant medications.

If you have any concerns or feel that you are experiencing side effects that do not get better after some time, contact your doctor.

Learn more about antidepressants here.

At-home treatments

It is possible to overcome GAD. Just because your doctor recommends medication or psychotherapy as treatment does not mean that you will need them forever.

Generally, both your doctor and your mental health professional will encourage you to practice some at-home treatments as well. This helps you learn to cope with your anxiety on your own.

Some at-home treatments include:

  • Structured problem solving: This technique attempts to help you turn your worry caused by GAD into strategies to find solutions. Instead of worrying, you can retrain your brain to view the anxiety differently. You should practice this technique on smaller problems first, and when you become more familiar with the process, you can use it to tackle bigger issues.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness: Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, can help with the physical symptoms of GAD. Mindfulness meditation can also help with the symptoms of GAD and other anxiety disorders. It helps you focus your mind on the present moment and relax your body.
  • Exercise: Your doctor may recommend exercise as an added treatment for your anxiety. Exercise is a useful tool for those with conditions such as GAD. It helps release serotonin, which boosts your mood and feelings of well-being. It can also reduce adrenaline and help distract your mind from your worries.

Always discuss any at-home treatments with your doctor before adding them to your treatment plan.

Get some tips to help manage stress here.

Prevention of generalized anxiety disorder

Because there are many complicated and possible reasons for GAD that tend to only be uncovered with therapy, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent the initial onset. However, it is possible to learn tools and strategies to help you live and cope with GAD in the future.

The best thing you can do is address any symptoms as quickly as possible. That way, you and your doctor can develop a treatment plan. The sooner you begin a treatment plan, the sooner you can begin to get back to your day-to-day life and the things you enjoy the most.

Summary

GAD is a type of anxiety disorder that involves excessive worry and anxiety. It can affect your day-to-day life and keep you from experiencing things you would ordinarily want to experience.

If you have any symptoms of GAD, speak with your doctor. They may refer you to a mental health professional and help you create a treatment plan.

It is often difficult to seek help when you are dealing with a condition such as GAD. It can make you feel alone and scared. However, you are not alone. Seeking help from your doctor is the best thing you can do to help yourself.

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Medical Reviewer: Matthew Boland, PhD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.