Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, And Getting Help

Updated January 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In this article, we'll review the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, what causes it, and treatment you can seek if you feel you may be experiencing symptoms from this disorder.

It’s normal for everyone to feel anxious now and then, especially over common worries like one’s job or marriage. But if you're experiencing anxiety on a regular basis and for no identifiable reason, you may have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a chronic illness that can cause significant distress to those who have it. Thankfully, GAD can be treated through a variety of options, from professional therapy, to taking part in a support group, to simple lifestyle changes. In this article, we'll review the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, what causes it, and treatment you can seek if you feel you may be experiencing symptoms from this disorder.

Anxiety Doesn’t Need To Take Over Your Life – You Are Not Alone

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of several types of anxiety disorders. An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition in which feelings of anxiety symptoms are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily life. They are related disorders in that one anxiety disorder is often related to other anxiety disorders.

For example, GAD often occurs alongside obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder, three other types of anxiety disorders. In fact, panic attacks have been known to occur in those with diagnosed GAD, which can lead to them being misdiagnosed with panic disorder. More likely, those individuals could have both GAD and panic disorder.

Aside from anxiety disorders, other mental health concerns are associated with GAD. These include depression and substance abuse.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the definition of generalized anxiety disorder in the simplest sense is persistent, excessive, and unfounded worry that is experienced on more days than not for a period of at least six months. 

In other words, it is a sense of anxiety or dread for no apparent reason, and which does not stop when a certain experience or action is overcome or completed (as with regular anxiety). Rather, it continues no matter what you happen to be doing, or if you've seemingly eliminated the source of the worry. It interferes with your ability to carry out daily tasks at home and at work and can have a severely negative impact on relationships.

One of the most notable aspects of generalized anxiety disorder is that it while it can be due to excessive worrying over, say, nuclear war or other catastrophic events, often it appears to stem from innocuous or insignificant sources. You may suddenly find yourself with inexplicable feelings of anxiety and tension and are unable to shake them. It's as if you are viewing life through a new perspective and can no longer successfully manage the stressors of everyday life. Instead, you find yourself in a constant cycle of worrying and trying to identify and cope with your most recent source of dread – whether there actually is one or not. 

Individuals experiencing this disorder will find reasons to worry despite their life appearing without major causes of stress or tension and be unable to accept that there isn't a reason to worry. This can cause them to become easily fatigued (due to muscle tension) and experience difficulty concentrating.

Because of its severity, generalized anxiety disorder is often not something you can tackle on your own. It usually requires professional treatment to control, and eventually overcome, so that you can return to a more normal emotional state. Without proper tools and resources, it can be exceptionally difficult to know what treatment methods may be most effective in combating your experience with generalized anxiety disorder and can lead to a greater sense of hopelessness.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

Generalized anxiety disorder can present itself differently depending on the person experiencing it. Some people may find they experience all the symptoms attributed to it, while others may only experience one or two. 

In either case, here is the list of symptoms currently associated with this anxiety disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic and ADAA:

Mental

  • Persistent and obsessive worrying
  • Feeling restless or “on edge”
  • Worry or dread about something that is far worse than the situation realistically calls for
  • Trouble concentrating due to excessive worry
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Constant obsession over situations and thinking of every negative conclusion they could come to
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988, and is available 24/7.

Physical

  • Fatigue and lacking your normal amount of energy
  • Irritability without cause
  • Muscle tension
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Trembling or feeling twitchy
  • Sweating
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Nausea or other digestive issues
  • Headaches

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states you need to have had these symptoms at least six months to have GAD diagnosed.

These generalized anxiety disorder symptoms show how this disorder differs from the anxiety everyone experiences as a normal part of life, or even other anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder. That anxiety passes after the source of the anxiety is eliminated (such as a medical procedure or the wait until a pay check is deposited). These moments of anxiety have a clear beginning and end, unlike Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which persists despite no apparent reason.

For those experiencing these symptoms, while a bit cliché, recognizing that they are not a part of a normal, healthy life is imperative to healing. Like many mental health conditions, if you have been living with symptoms of GAD for over six months, it may be time to seek professional help. Resources are available, and it's important to seek them out rather than continue to live with excessive anxiety.

Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Today, the exact cause of generalized anxiety disorder is unknown. Like many mental health disorders, there doesn't seem to be a general type of person inclined to experience this disorder, but certain circumstances and risk factors are thought to contribute to its formation. 

It’s believed GAD begins gradually, usually in childhood or early adolescence.

Currently, risk factors for or potential causes of generalized anxiety include:

  • Genetics or family history of anxiety
  • Certain personality traits (such as timidity or lack of confidence traits that cause someone to overthink situations or doubt their ability to handle them)
  • Environmental factors – exposure to stressful situations or traumatic experiences (particularly instances of abuse)
  • Biological gender
  • Brain chemistry
  • Age

The level at which each of these risk factors and causes contribute to generalized anxiety disorder is still unclear. However, being aware of them can help diagnose the disorder and determine plans for how to treat it.

Something to note is that according to a statistic from the ADAA, women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which supports the current theory that a person's gender can play a role in the likelihood of developing it. Mental health professionals believe this proclivity for women to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety stems from a few factors, including their hormonal makeup, caretaker roles, and willingness to seek help. 

Young adults are also vulnerable. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.2% of adolescents and young adults in the US will experience GAD in their lifetimes.

Unfortunately, at this time, there is also evidence that an individual can develop generalized anxiety disorder without any identifiable cause. Because there is no one fully-confirmed cause, it's essential for individuals to receive professional, individualized treatment to have the best chance of successfully managing the disorder.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Tests And Self-Assessments

If you are experiencing symptoms of chronic, long-term anxiety and believe you could have generalized anxiety disorder, there are questionnaires you can take to help you assess the severity of your anxiety. These tests are not a substitute for a professional diagnosis or treatment plan but can give you the insight you need to take the first step towards recovery.

Plus, these assessments can help you put your feelings and experiences into quantifiable statements that can start a dialogue with a professional who can give you the help you need. You can find assessments on the ADAA website and other online mental health resources to help get you started on your search for treatment.

Treatment For Generalized Anxiety Disorder

If you are experiencing chronic anxiety symptoms and believe you could have generalized anxiety disorder, there are questionnaires you can take to help you assess the severity of your anxiety. These tests are not a substitute for a professional diagnosis or treatment plan but can give you the insight you need to take the first step towards recovery.

Plus, these assessments can help you put your feelings and experiences into quantifiable statements that can start a dialogue with a professional who can give you the help you need. You can find assessments on the ADAA website and other online mental health resources to help get you started on your search for treatment.

Treatment For Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Unlike the anxiety everyone experiences in their lives, people with generalized anxiety disorder most likely will not be able to manage or overcome it on their own. In some cases, it takes people years to manage the symptoms and learn what best works for their situation. Seeking professional treatment can help identify what is or is not helpful more quickly.

There are multiple ways to treat anxiety stemming from GAD (or other anxiety disorders) and with the guidance of a professional, they can be used separately or together to create an individualized treatment plan that offers the best chance of successfully managing chronic anxiety. 

They are:

  • Psychological treatment: Perhaps the most widely-used treatment for generalized anxiety disorder, working one-on-one with a professional therapist is often the most effective treatment for this disorder. It can include a variety of psychological techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy and a purposeful exposure to whatever the perceived source of anxiety is. This means that the therapist works with the patient to help them face what they are anxious about in a controlled environment, assess whether the source or situation is actually realistic, and then attempt to transform anxious thoughts into positive ones. A mental health professional can also prescribe medication, such as common anti-anxiety medications, to reduce anxiety symptoms. While a long process, it is generally very effective in helping people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder realize that the feelings they are experiencing don't come from reality and don't control them.

It can be difficult for individuals with GAD to participate in in-person counseling, especially at first. Studies have found that online CBT counseling for anxiety is generally just as effective as in-person therapy. Online counseling, such as through BetterHelp, can also remove some initial anxiety surrounding counseling. Patients can participate in counseling from the comfort of their home – or anywhere with an internet connection – and they can use the online method they’re most comfortable with, ranging from video calls to online chats. 

  • Relaxation or meditation: Often used in conjunction with psychological treatment, relaxation techniques, such as rhythmic breathing or positive visualization, supplement professional treatment sessions. They are designed to be used anytime someone with chronic anxiety needs them and are meant to help them manage the anxiety more positively and constructively. These relaxation techniques can help ease any excessive worry you are feeling, as well as help with muscle aches or other physical symptoms which you may have.
  • Self-help: Similar to relaxation and meditation, self-help can be a great supporting tool in an overall treatment program. 
  • Family support: An important part of treatment for this disorder is support from the family of the diagnosed individual. 
  • Lifestyle changes: Perhaps you have been pushing yourself too hard due to a new or demanding job? Or you are up too late at night? Try taking it a bit easier for at least a few weeks while you get you get your anxiety under control.

Anxiety Doesn’t Need To Take Over Your Life – You Are Not Alone

Takeaway

Generalized anxiety disorder treatment is no small feat. It takes time to manage the disorder and begin to return to a regular level of anxiety. That's why it's important to reach out to a professional for help. They have the resources and knowledge to help you manage your anxiety. If you think you're experiencing generalized anxiety disorder don't hesitate to get professional treatment - it doesn't need to control your life any longer.

Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:

What are the 5 symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder?

What are the 6 symptoms of GAD?

How do I know if I have generalized anxiety disorder?

What generalized anxiety feels like?

Is GAD a serious mental illness?

What triggers generalized anxiety disorder?

Is anxiety a mental illness?

What is best drug for GAD?

Is anxiety genetic or learned?

Is GAD a psychotic disorder?

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