Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder that can cause people to constantly and persistently experience feelings of anxiety, worry, tension and nervousness.

It’s worthy to note that GAD is unlike a phobia, because a phobia is connected to a specific object or situation, whereas the anxiety from GAD is a general, all-encompassing feeling of persistent dread and unease.

People who have generalized anxiety disorder typically feel nervous and stressed, even when there’s no logical reason for this. For example, they may feel anxious in a common, everyday situation, with no clear cause.

Generalized anxiety disorder is a common disorder, affecting approximately 5.7 percent of US adults at some point in life. Like other anxiety disorders, it can vary in severity, causing severe symptoms for some and less significant symptoms for others.

Luckily, generalized anxiety disorder is treatable. Today, a range of treatment options, including medication and therapy, are available to manage the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and allow people affected by GAD to live normal lives.

Below, we’ve explained what generalized anxiety disorder is, as well as the symptoms you may experience if you have GAD. We’ve also listed and explained the causes and major risk factors that can contribute to anxiety disorders such as GAD.

Finally, we’ve explained how generalized anxiety disorder can be treated and managed using a range of options, including medication, therapy and changes to your lifestyle.

What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?

Generalized anxiety disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that can cause people to experience excessive, persistent anxiety about a variety of things, including everyday events.

It’s absolutely normal to experience anxiety from time to time. You may feel anxious when you prepare for a speech, exam, presentation or any other situation that requires you to perform in front of others. 

Or, you may feel worry and anxiety during a stressful situation involving family members, money or your physical or mental health.

Experiencing occasional anxiety doesn’t mean that you have generalized anxiety disorder. It’s a very normal, routine part of life that occurs for everyone.

People with generalized anxiety disorder feel excessively nervous and worried in situations that wouldn’t normally cause these feelings. They often experience anxiety when there’s no reason to feel stressed or nervous.

For example, people with generalized anxiety disorder may anticipate disaster after a relatively small, inconsequential event. They might expect the worst in certain situations and worry about a certain, negative outcome more than seems reasonable.

For some people, this ongoing anxiety can interfere with everyday activities and make it difficult to live a normal life.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The precise symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can vary from person to person, both in type and severity. They can also vary based on a person’s age. For example, younger people may feel anxiety regarding different things than older people affected by GAD.

Generalized anxiety disorder can cause symptoms that affect your emotions, your behavior and your physical health. Emotional symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can include:

  • Worrying excessively about common, everyday events, tasks and occurrences
  • Finding it difficult to control feelings of nervousness, anxiety and worry
  • Intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety and are difficult to get out of your mind
  • Persistent, ubiquitous thoughts of apprehension and worry
  • Needing to know what’s going on in any situation, or in the future
  • Difficulty dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability

Behavioral symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can include:

  • Finding it difficult to relax, even in quiet, peaceful situations
  • Planning excessively for certain situations
  • Difficulty concentrating on specific tasks
  • Struggling to make decisions, or worrying about making the wrong decision
  • Avoiding certain situations due to worry and anxiety
  • Delaying or avoiding certain tasks

Physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include:

  • Fatigue or a general, ongoing lack of energy
  • Feelings of light-headedness
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Headaches and other unexplained pains
  • Trembling, twitching and generally feeling jumpy
  • Diarrhea, nausea and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Needing to use the bathroom more than normal
  • Muscle aches and tension
  • Difficulty swallowing

In younger people, generalized anxiety symptoms may include excessive anxiety about school or college, their performance in sports, relationships or other factors. Some young people may experience significant anxiety regarding catastrophic events. 

Younger people with generalized anxiety disorder, such as children and teens, may exhibit the following symptoms and behaviors:

  • Lacking confidence and requiring reassurance about themselves
  • Striving for approval from other people
  • Feelings of perfectionism, or a need to repeatedly redo tasks until they’re perfect
  • Excessively doing homework and other school-related tasks
  • Avoiding school and other situations that require them to socialize

In adults, symptoms often revolve around everyday events and concerns, such as physical and mental health, careers, finances, household tasks, relationships and their families.

The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder may vary in severity from one specific moment to another. Some people with GAD may experience worse symptoms in stressful periods, such as during a personal conflict, or during an education or career-related crunch time. 

Normal Anxiety vs. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

As mentioned above, it’s normal to experience anxiety from time to time, and feeling anxious or worried in certain situations doesn’t mean that you have an anxiety disorder. 

Generalized anxiety disorder is when your worrying is persistent, intrusive, out of proportion to the specific event and disruptive to your life. For example:

  • You may feel worried about certain things. If you have GAD, this worrying may disrupt your ability to maintain your normal work or educational performance, spend time with your friends and family, or take part in normal activities.
  • Normally, you only worry about certain, specific things, such as an exam score or work assignment. If you have GAD, you may worry about a large variety of unrelated topics and assume negative outcomes.
  • Normally, you can control your worrying to some extent, preventing it from causing you to experience distress. If you have GAD, you may be unable to effectively control your worrying, resulting in significant personal distress and unhappiness.

Another key difference between “normal” anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder is the total amount of time that symptoms occur.

It’s normal to worry for short, reasonable periods of time. However, if you have GAD, you may worry about certain things every day for a period of six months or longer

Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Right now, experts aren’t completely sure about what causes generalized anxiety disorder. The current research points toward a possible combination of biological factors and environmental factors that may contribute to anxiety disorders such as GAD. 

While the exact cause of GAD isn’t known, certain factors may increase your risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder. These include:

  • Being female. Women are twice as likely to be affected by generalized anxiety disorder as men. In fact, many anxiety disorders appear to be more prevalent in women than in men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • Stressful or traumatic experiences. Going through a traumatic or negative experience, or dealing with significant life changes, may increase your risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Personality traits. Some personality traits (such as a negative temperament or general avoidance of risk), as well as things like race, traumatic life experiences, family environments and sex may be correlated with generalized anxiety disorder. However, it’s worth noting that this is a symptom of all anxiety disorders; not just GAD.
  • Family history of anxiety disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder may have a genetic component, causing it to run in families.
  • History of chronic physical or mental health disorders. Other chronic illnesses, such as physical illnesses and mental health disorders, may also be linked to an elevated risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder.

Treatments for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Like other anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder can have a significant negative impact on your life. However, it is treatable. A variety of different treatments are available for GAD, from therapy to the use of certain medications. 

In some cases, the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can also be improved by making certain changes to your lifestyle. 

If you think that you might be affected by generalized anxiety disorder, it’s important to talk to a mental health professional. You can talk to a licensed psychiatry provider online and learn more about the options that are available to help you. 

We’ve listed all of the treatment options for generalized anxiety disorder below, along with more information on each treatment.

Psychotherapy

Generalized anxiety disorder is often treated through psychotherapy. Many people affected by GAD experience improvements through a form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy. It often involves identifying and changing the unhelpful, learned behavioral patterns that can contribute to problems such as anxiety.

As part of cognitive behavioral therapy, you may work with your healthcare provider to focus on recognizing the aspects of your thinking that contribute to anxiety and use problem-solving skills to better deal with situations that cause you to experience symptoms.

Sometimes, other forms of therapy are used to treat generalized anxiety disorder. These include mindfulness-based approaches, which often incorporate meditative practices, and options such as acceptance and commitment therapy.

In some cases, you may undergo psychotherapy while also using medication to control and limit your anxiety symptoms. 

If you’re worried that you may have generalized anxiety disorder and want to explore therapy as a way to receive support and make progress, you can take part in group or one-on-one therapy online with a licensed therapist.

Medications

Several different types of medications are used to treat generalized anxiety disorder. For some people, medication alone may be enough to relieve your symptoms and help you keep anxiety under control. For others, treatment may involve a combination of medication and therapy.

Currently, the most common medications used to treat generalized anxiety disorder include the following:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications are designed to treat depression, but also work for anxiety disorders. They work by changing the levels of certain neurotransmitters inside your brain.

    Common SSRIs used to treat generalized anxiety disorder include paroxetine (Paxil®) and escitalopram (Lexapro®). These medications don’t work immediately — instead, it usually takes a few weeks before you’ll notice an improvement.

    While SSRIs can cause side effects, they’re relatively safe for long-term use and aren’t addictive. Because of this, they’re often used as long-term and first-line treatments for generalized anxiety disorder.

    You can learn more about how SSRIs work, their effects, side effects and more in our complete guide to SSRIs.
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs). Like SSRIs, medications of this type work by changing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain. SNRIs are also often prescribed to treat depression.

    Common SNRIs used to treat generalized anxiety disorder include duloxetine (Cymbalta®) and venlafaxine (Effexor®). Like SSRIs, it can take several weeks for SNRIs to produce a noticeable reduction in anxiety symptoms.
  • Benzodiazepines. These medications work by reducing the speed at which your central nervous system works. They can help you feel relaxed and reduce the severity of many anxiety symptoms.

    Common benzodiazepines used to treat generalized anxiety disorder include alprazolam (sold as Xanax®), diazepam (Valium®) and others. These medications generally work quickly and help to limit anxiety symptoms in about 30 minutes to one hour — but also aren’t long-lasting.

    Although benzodiazepines are effective, they can cause side effects and dependence if used too often. Because of this, medications of this type are typically only prescribed to treat generalized anxiety disorder in the short term.

    They’re also not typically prescribed to people with severe and persistent suicidal thoughts, or people with a history of addiction.
  • Buspirone. This is an anxiolytic, or anti-anxiety medication, that’s prescribed to treat generalized anxiety disorder. It has relatively few side effects and is often prescribed after other medications aren’t effective. It may also be used with SSRIs.

    Buspirone (Buspar®) isn’t addictive and doesn’t cause physical dependence, meaning it’s often a good option for people prone to substance abuse.Although effective, it can take several weeks to start working as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. 

No two individuals or cases of generalized anxiety disorder are exactly the same. As such, your healthcare provider will work with you to choose a combination of medication and therapy that’s best suited to your needs. 

Lifestyle Changes

  • Create a support network. Dealing with anxiety is easier when you have friends and family members you can talk to. Reach out to people you trust and let them know that you may need them to be there for you when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • Explain things to your partner. If you’re married or have a long-term romantic partner, let them know that you have generalized anxiety disorder. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk it out with them to explain your worries and get some honest feedback.

    While it might seem overly simple, talking about your anxiety can often help you to relax and overcome your worries.
  • Stick to a regular exercise routine. Exercise isn’t just good for you physically — it may also have benefits as a method of relieving stress, preventing depression and making anxiety less severe.

    Try to aim for at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, each week (the current amount specified in the government’s Physical Activity Guidelines).
  • Make sure to get enough sleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation can potentially cause anxiety disorders. As such, it’s important to be sure that your sleep habits aren’t contributing to your generalized anxiety disorder symptoms.

    While there’s no ideal amount of sleep for everyone, it’s recommended that most adults aim for seven to nine hours each night. Our guide to getting better sleep lists a variety of science-backed techniques that you can use to help you reach this sleep target.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. Anxiety disorders and alcohol use are closely linked, with a significant percentage of people with anxiety disorders using alcohol and/or drugs as a way to find relief from their symptoms.

    While drinking or using drugs might temporarily ease the symptoms of anxiety, these substances can make your symptoms become worse over time. Many people who turn to alcohol and/or drugs to deal with anxiety also develop alcohol or drug use abuse issues.

    Keep yourself focused on getting better by closely following the instructions provided by your healthcare provider and avoiding drugs or alcohol.
  • Try to maintain a healthy, regular diet. Although “bad” food won’t cause anxiety, letting your blood sugar drop too low — something that happens when you eat irregularly — may be linked to some anxiety symptoms.

    Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet and avoid going too long without eating a meal. Stick to nutritious foods and try to avoid simple sugars, as the high-to-low blood sugar activity caused by sugar-rich foods may worsen some aspects of your anxiety.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. Although many people think smoking calms your nerves, the nicotine in cigarettes can actually make anxiety symptoms worse. If you’re affected by generalized anxiety disorder and smoke cigarettes, make an effort to quit.

    Need help quitting? Our complete guide to your options for quitting smoking offers more information on the techniques and medications that you can use to give up cigarettes for good.
  • Limit your caffeine intake. While a cup of coffee can provide a helpful boost of energy in the morning, several studies have found that caffeine can cause an increase in some anxiety symptoms.

    As such, it’s best not to overdo it if you’re a coffee enthusiast with generalized anxiety disorder. If you notice your symptoms worsening after a coffee or energy drink, try to limit your caffeine consumption or quit altogether.
  • When you feel anxiety, try practice calming yourself down. Simple things, such as listening to soothing music, looking at a family photo, chewing on gum, sipping a cup of decaffeinated herbal tea or lighting a scented candle can all help to relieve anxiety.

    While not all of these things are possible in every scenario, practicing a few techniques that you can use to relax and calm down quickly can make it easier to deal with anxiety in certain situations.
  • Consider joining a support group. You can find support groups for other people with generalized anxiety disorder and other conditions both locally and online. The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists more than 600 local support groups across the country.

    Prefer to take part from home? You can also take part in support groups for anxiety and other conditions online.

In Conclusion

Generalized anxiety disorder is extremely common, with approximately 5.7 percent of US adults affected by GAD at some point in life. 

If you have anxiety, you’re definitely not alone, nor are you without options. From psychotherapy to medication, a range of safe, science-backed treatments are available to help you control your anxiety and live a normal, fulfilling life.

Because of this, it’s important that you take action if you think you have an anxiety disorder. You can do this by talking to your healthcare provider or taking part in a conversation with a licensed therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health provider online.

Once you begin treatment, stick to your plan. With effort and consistency, it’s absolutely possible to take control of anxiety, overcome your worries and enjoy the quality of life you deserve. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.