What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common anxiety disorder. It affects approximately 6.8 million adults in the United States. People with this anxiety disorder experience excessive levels of worry and tension even when they have no logical reason to feel that way.

Causes of GAD

There isn't one precise cause for GAD. Instead, doctors think a combination of biological and environmental factors trigger GAD. These may include differences in your personality or the way your brain works. GAD might also have a genetic component. That means your parents may pass down a tendency for you to develop the condition. Going through traumatic experiences may also be a trigger.

Risk factors for GAD

The risk factors of GAD are similar to other anxiety disorders. Women are more likely than men to develop the disorder. People with siblings or parents with anxiety also have a higher risk.

This disorder appears to run in families. Doctors aren't sure if that's due to inherited traits or not. People might learn certain behaviors from their family members. There's some evidence that the amygdala is involved. This is the part of your brain that controls emotions and memories.

Other risk factors include personality and experience. If you tend to be timid or avoid dangerous situations, you can have an increased risk for GAD. This is also true if you've experienced trauma, chronic illness or abuse.

Symptoms of GAD

The main symptom of GAD is lasting worry. You might worry about several different things. The worry seems extreme compared to whatever you're thinking about. For example, you might worry about paying bills even though you have enough money in the bank. In some cases, you can be so overcome with worry that you can't function in daily life.
Other symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Nervousness
  • Sleep disorders
  • Fixating on worry
  • Not being able to relax
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Showing perfectionist tendencies
  • Worrying about threats that don't exist
  • Muscle tension, trembling or twitching
  • Not being able to deal with uncertainty
  • Obsessing about worst-case outcomes to situations

Kids with GAD may worry about their performance in school or the safety of family members. They might obsess about natural disasters, war and illnesses.

Diagnosis of GAD

Medical and mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose GAD. This is a book that explains mental health issues. It also lists certain conditions that you need to meet to get diagnosed with GAD. A medical doctor or psychologist can interview you find out your symptoms. The doctor might also give you a physical exam and blood test. This can help them rule out conditions that have similar symptoms.

Treatments for GAD

Treatments for GAD depend on how strong your symptoms are. They can include both psychotherapy and medication. For mild cases, your doctor might recommend that you exercise regularly, get enough sleep and make dietary changes.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a common part of GAD treatment. You attend sessions with a trained therapist. You talk to them and learn how to identify symptoms. The therapist can teach you how to change the way you react to symptoms. The therapist may also teach you how to adapt behaviors and routines to lower your anxiety levels.

Certain types of medication also help with GAD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are effective for many people. There's a possibility this type of drug might not work for you. Your doctor may prescribe other types of medication. These include serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI), benzodiazepines or antidepressants. All of these medications shift the way your brain responds to certain signals that cause anxious feelings.

Recovery from GAD

You may be able to recover from GAD. It depends on how strong your symptoms are and how well you respond to treatment. This is why it's important to follow instructions from your medical and mental health professionals.

You may have other physical and mental health conditions. This means you may not recover from GAD. But you might have fewer symptoms when you take your medication regularly and go to therapy.