Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, And Getting Help
By Sarah Fader
Updated February 06, 2020
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
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 suffering from this disorder.
Do I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder? You may have asked yourself this question time and time again, wondering why you feel so lifeless or anxious. You might have wondered why you can't concentrate like you used to or are bored with something you used to love.
You may think to yourself, "What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?" or wonder how it's different from regular, everyday anxiety. You may struggle to wrap your head around something that feels so out of your control. You might be wondering what's causing your anxiety or why you can't get it to go away.
Or maybe you've never even heard of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Maybe you've only noticed that for months or even years that you simply haven't been yourself. You've felt like a shadow of your former self but have simply accepted that this is your new "normal." You've convinced yourself that you're fine in fear of admitting that something is wrong. By doing this, you're setting yourself up to continue living life as a daily struggle, simply making it through each day rather than fully enjoying life.
If you're feeling more than passing moments of anxiety, which affect everyone at certain times in their life, and have simply learned to live with incessant worry, you may be experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder symptoms.
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD?
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 that does not stop when a certain experience or action is overcome or completed (as with regular anxiety) but rather 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 appears to stem from innocuous or insignificant sources. Suddenly you 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. Sufferers of 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.
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 suffer from all the symptoms attributed to it, while others may only suffer from 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:
- Persistent and obsessive worrying
- Worry or dread about something that is far worse than the situation realistically calls for
- Inability to "set aside" worry and focus on something else
- Inability to make decisions
- Constant obsession over situations and thinking of every negative conclusion they could come to
- Restlessness or feeling constantly on edge and unable to relax
- Lacking ability to concentrate or having your mind go blank
- Fatigue and lacking your normal amount of energy
- Irritability without cause
- Muscle tension
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Trembling or feeling twitchy
- Nausea or other digestive issues
These Generalized Anxiety Disorder symptoms show how this disorder differs from the anxiety everyone experiences as a normal part of life. That anxiety passes after the source of the anxiety is eliminated (such as a medical procedure or the wait until a paycheck is deposited). These moments of anxiety have a clear beginning and end, unlike Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which persists despite no apparent reasons to.
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. If you are living with any of these symptoms and have been for over six months, it may be time to consider that with help you don't need to continue to do so. 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 suffer from this disorder, but certain circumstances and risk factors are thought to contribute to its formation. Additionally, the onset of this disorder is generally gradual and can take place over the course of years as symptoms worsen.
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)
Extended exposure to stressful or traumatic experiences (particularly instances of abuse)
The level of which each of these risk factors and causes contribute to generalized anxiety disorder is still unclear. However, being aware of them can be helpful in diagnosing the disorder and determining 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 sex 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.
One is the different hormonal make-up of women compared to men, which can affect emotional responses to situations. The second is that women typically feel a greater responsibility to ensure the well-being of those around them and put more pressure on themselves to take care of family and friends
This pressure can often trigger anxiety if women feel they aren't living up to the expectations placed upon them whether they're real expectations from people in their lives or not. Finally, women are generally more likely to come forward about feelings of anxiety and ask for help than men, meaning there could be a higher percentage of men living with the disorder that simply doesn't talk about their anxiety or seek treatment for it.
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
Unlike the anxiety everyone experiences in their lives, people struggling 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 you identify what is helpful or not more quickly.
There are multiple ways to treat Generalized Anxiety Disorder, 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 or not the source or situation is actually realistic, and then attempt to transform anxious thoughts into positive ones. 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.
- Relaxation or meditation: Often used in conjunction with psychological treatment, relaxation or meditation 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 in a more positive and constructive manner.
- Medication: Prescription medications, such as anti-depressants, can be prescribed to individuals by their physicians as part of their treatment program. These can give short-term relief to symptoms and help make other treatments more effective.
- Self-help: Similar to relaxation and meditation, self-help can be a great supporting tool in an overall treatment program. For most it can include making an effort to identify what triggers their anxiety so that they're better able to control their response to it, meeting with others who have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and sharing experiences and learning more about the disorder.
- Family support: An important part of treatment for this disorder it supports from the family of the diagnosed individual. Because generalized anxiety distorts reality and can lead to difficulties making decisions in those suffering from it, having family members join in the treatment plan, offer an outside perspective on the individual's symptoms, and act as secondary support to the professional they're working with can significantly impact the success of a treatment program.
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 suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder don't hesitate to get professional treatment-it doesn't need to control your life any longer.
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