What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

<p>LaylaBird / getty images</p>

LaylaBird / getty images

Medically reviewed by Dakari Quimby, PhD

Occasionally worrying about an upcoming work presentation, a stressful family situation, or a complicated relationship is a natural part of life. But when that worry becomes excessive, frequent, and involves everyday issues—that could be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

This specific type of anxiety disorder—which is estimated to affect around 2% of adults in the United States—is known for coming with a persistent fear, worry, or dread about seemingly inconsequential events. There's no exact cause, but the good news is GAD can be treated once it's officially diagnosed.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

Each person may experience generalized anxiety disorder slightly differently.

The main symptom of GAD is excessive, disproportionate worry about everyday circumstances that has lasted for at least six months. In adults, this might look like constant, out-of-control worrying about your job, health, finances, relationships, and more.

People experiencing GAD typically have a hard time controlling their worry, and are aware that they're worrying more than they logically should.

GAD can involve other physical and mental symptoms that can interfere with your daily life, including:

  • Pain

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Startling easily

  • Headaches, stomachaches, or muscle aches

  • Feeling restless

  • Trouble sleeping

These signs and symptoms can shift over time. They may also feel worse as you're going through particularly stressful times, such as during relationship conflict, an intense work period, or a health condition or illness.

What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder occurs when a person is experiencing persistent anxiety—feelings of worry or dread—even without a clear stressor. The body can read anxiety as an internal "alarm" that is signaling danger which can lead to a psychological and physical response.

Experts don't know exactly what causes GAD to develop, but it's likely the result of a combination of physical and environmental factors such as:

  • Genetics: There is some evidence that GAD runs in families. Your individual brain chemistry also plays a role.

  • Environmental Stress: Big life changes as well as stressful or traumatic experiences can cause anxiety disorders to develop.

  • Medications: Some medications, such as stimulants, can cause feelings of anxiety.

  • Other conditions: Having another mental health condition like depression could lead to the onset of GAD.

GAD tends to develop gradually, usually appearing sometime between childhood and middle age, and impacts women more than men.

Risk Factors

You may be at a higher risk for developing GAD if you:

  • Have a family member with an anxiety disorder or other mental illness

  • Experienced a traumatic event or grew up in a stressful environment

  • Have another mental health condition, like depression

How Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?

Rather than self-diagnosing, it's important to see a healthcare provider to get an official generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis.

Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam and ask you a series of questions about your symptoms to rule out other illnesses. From there, they may refer you to a healthcare provider who specializes in mental health.

A mental health professional will talk to you about your symptoms. They'll use criteria from the professional reference manual for diagnosing mental illnesses (DSM-5) to help determine whether you're experiencing GAD.

The requirements for a GAD diagnosis in adults include:

  • Excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics for at least six months

  • Anxiety and worry that's challenging to keep under control

  • Anxiety and worry that comes along with at least three physical or mental symptoms, including: restlessness, fatigue, issues concentrating, irritability, muscle aches, or difficulty sleeping

There are also screening tools like the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale-7 (GAD-7) that can help diagnose or assess the severity of symptoms.

Treatments for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Treatment options for generalized anxiety disorder can vary depending on your preferences and the healthcare provider's recommendation. A treatment plan can include a combination of options.

Prescription Medications

In many cases, prescription medications can help provide relief from symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Medications for GAD can include:

  • Antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are meant to treat depression, but they have also been effective for treating GAD when used over a period of time.

  • Benzodiazepines, which are sedative medications, can serve as fast-acting medications to quickly tame an anxiety episode. These medications can be tolerance-forming and might only be prescribed for shorter time periods.

  • Beta-blockers, which are heart medications, can quickly help control some of the physical symptoms of anxiety.


Different types of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, techniques can often help reduce symptoms of GAD and help you cope with the disorder. Your healthcare provider can recommend a mental health professional that provides these therapies.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works to adjust unhelpful thought patterns and encourage different ways of thinking and reacting. In this therapy, you might address your specific anxieties and work on becoming less reactive to those fears.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction involves meditation and an intentional focus on the present moment. This practice is meant to cultivate relaxation and ease anxious thoughts.

There are several complementary and alternative medicine treatments that may be helpful for some people with an anxiety disorder. However, many of these remedies haven't been scientifically proven. Treatment options you may come across include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage

  • Aromatherapy

  • Supplements like kava extract, St. John's wort, or tryptophan

Always check with a healthcare provider before adding any new vitamins or supplements into your routine—particularly because some may interact with generalized anxiety disorder medications like SSRIs.

How to Prevent Generalized Anxiety Disorder Attacks

Generalized anxiety disorder can't be prevented in the same way another health condition might be.

But when GAD starts to develop, there are some ways to address your symptoms and work on a plan to help reduce the intensity of an anxiety attack. You can help manage your anxiety by:

  • Keeping up with any medications or therapy sessions in your treatment plan

  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine

  • Getting consistent, good quality sleep

  • Eating a well-balanced diet full of nutritious foods

  • Cutting back on caffeine intake

  • Refraining from drinking large amounts of alcohol or using illicit drugs

Related Conditions

Experiencing generalized anxiety disorder may make you more likely to have another health condition at the same time. Research has shown this might include:

  • Depression, as GAD often happens alongside at least one other mood or anxiety disorder

  • Substance use disorder, with some research suggesting drug and alcohol use is more common in people with an anxiety disorder

  • Digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which have been closely linked to anxiety and depression

  • Dementia, as anxiety disorders might cause brain damage that lead to this condition

Living With Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Coping with an anxiety disorder like GAD can feel difficult, challenging, and frustrating—but you're not alone. It's estimated that roughly one third of adults in the U.S. will experience some type of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Because GAD can be a long-term condition, getting on a treatment plan that works well for you and your lifestyle is a good first step in getting your anxiety under control. Along with medication and talk therapy, you can also cope with this condition by:

  • Joining a support group for solidarity with others going through the same experience

  • Opening up to family or friends if you become overwhelmingly nervous or scared

  • Taking advantage of stress management techniques, like meditation or mindfulness, to help manage your day-to-day life

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Read the original article on Health.