Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Takes Over

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental health condition that affects about 6.8 million adults in the U.S. Let’s take a look at the symptoms, diagnosis, causes, and treatment options.

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW
Anxious woman by window.

Updated on May 20, 2024

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Are you constantly worrying about the future, dwelling on worst-case scenarios, and experiencing a sense of unease that lingers throughout the day? If so, you may be familiar with the challenges of living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental health condition that affects about 6.8 million adults in the U.S. It’s characterized by feelings of excessive anxiety and uncontrollable worry about various aspects of life, often accompanied by physical and emotional symptoms that can significantly impact daily life.

In this article, we’ll delve into the depths of GAD, exploring its definition, symptoms, diagnosis, causes, and treatment options.

Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic and uncontrollable worry and tension that extends beyond specific situations or events.

More than the typical amount of worry you might experience from day to day, people with GAD have difficulty controlling their worry, to the point that it impairs their ability to work, socialize, or generally participate in life. From a diagnostic standpoint, GAD is defined as worry that occurs more often than not for at least six months and is clearly excessive .

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Individuals with GAD experience a range of symptoms that significantly impact their daily functioning. The most common symptoms include:

Other symptoms may include:

Additionally, some people also describe having heart palpitations that feel like they’re having a heart attack.

GAD symptoms may vary across demographics, particularly across individuals of different ages. John’Neiska Williams, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy, explains that a child might have anxiety as it relates to making friends, or attachment to parents or toys, while a teen might experience anxiety as it relates to pressure of school and the future or relationships. An adult, on the other hand, may experience anxiety due to work, raising children, or paying bills, and an older adult can experience anxiety based on experiences or overall life satisfaction through their years.

“The development and societal roles and experiences are different for each age group so the symptoms may look more or less intense,” says Williams.

Of course, most people experience worry or anxiety about many of the same things listed above, but a person with GAD experiences these worries in a much more intense and persistent manner. A person with GAD is generally much more apprehensive, vigilant, and pessimistic about the world around them.

Diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

In 2019, 9.5%, 3.4%, and 2.7% of adults experienced mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of anxiety in the prior 2 weeks, respectively. Women and people between 18 and 29 were the most likely to experience symptoms of anxiety.

To receive a diagnosis of GAD, individuals must meet specific criteria outlined in diagnostic manuals such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). There are some screening tools available online that can help you determine if your worry has become excessive enough to be considered GAD.

Often, the GAD7 assessment tool is used to determine how severe someone’s symptoms are. It’s important to note that GAD is different from other anxiety disorders, such as Illness Anxiety Disorder or Social Anxiety Disorder, as the anxiety is generalized to many different life domains, rather than just one specific type of stimulus.

However, to be formally diagnosed you must speak with your doctor or mental health professional.

Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The exact causes of GAD are complex and highly variable. Williams points out that anything can cause someone to feel anxiety, so the exact reason or reasons someone might develop GAD depend on their situation and experiences.

“Most pre-existing factors have to do with stress or trauma,” says Williams. “But, it can also be due to learning and developmental experiences, personality traits, and drugs or alcohol.”

There’s some research to suggest that genetics may play a role in the development of GAD, but more research is needed.

Risk Factors for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Risk factors for GAD include a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Family history of anxiety disorders, traumatic experiences, chronic stress, and temperament prone to worry are influential. Early childhood experiences, trauma, and cognitive deficits may also put someone at a higher risk for developing GAD later in life .

Generalized Anxiety Disorder vs. Normal Worrying

Distinguishing between GAD and normal worrying is important for understanding the disorder’s impact. Williams notes that a normal amount of worry or anxiety isn’t a bad thing, but when your worry gets to the point that it’s inhibiting your day-to-day life, like preventing you from going to work or taking care of your kids, it can be very harmful.

“With a GAD diagnosis, worry has essentially become excessive to the point where panic, paranoia, obsessiveness, and constant fear exist and begins to impair your daily functioning,” says Williams.

Living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD can have a significant negative impact on relationships, work or school performance, and overall well-being.

How Generalized Anxiety Disorder Affects Daily Life

Because of their extreme levels of anxiety, individuals with GAD may be unable to leave their homes, incapable of taking care of their pets or children, and unable to maintain friendships.

Helping Manage Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Effective coping strategies are crucial for managing GAD symptoms and improving overall well-being. These may include:

In some cases, medication may be beneficial. A mental health care provider or doctor can help you navigate the medication options and choose the right one for you.

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Treatment Options for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

While GAD is significantly challenging, effective treatments are available. Treatment typically involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps identify and modify negative thinking patterns, while exposure therapy gradually exposes individuals to anxiety-inducing situations. Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or benzodiazepines may be prescribed to manage symptoms. Regular monitoring and adjustments are crucial for optimal results.

Medications for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Medication options for GAD typically include SSRIs, such as fluoxetine or sertraline, which regulate serotonin levels in the brain. Benzodiazepines like alprazolam or diazepam may be prescribed for short-term relief, but long-term use is generally avoided due to the risk of dependence and tolerance. Consultation with a healthcare professional is essential for determining the appropriate medication and dosage.

Talk Therapy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Talk therapy, such as CBT is a commonly used treatment for GAD. It focuses on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, teaching coping skills, and promoting relaxation techniques. Through regular sessions with a therapist, individuals can gain insight, develop effective strategies, and reduce anxiety symptoms in a supportive environment. This type of therapy has been shown to be effective at reducing the effects of GAD.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR can be incredibly effective in conjunction with CBT in managing triggers and irrational thought patterns often associated with anxiety. Also, Dialectical Behavior Therapy has a list of skills to assist with distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and mindfulness.

“As a clinician, I like to use exposure and narrative therapy to treat clients,” says Williams. “CBT skills and DBT skills work as well and are more common alongside medication management, which is also an easier route for some.”

Lifestyle Changes for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Making certain lifestyle modifications can complement formal treatment and improve the management of GAD symptoms. These may include:

Fostering a strong support network can also have a significant impact on GAD symptoms. Remember, you do not need to deal with your worries alone.

Supporting Someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Like with many mental health disorders, support from loved ones plays a vital role in helping individuals with GAD. It can be a challenge to support someone who is going through GAD, but there are things you can do to help your loved one.

How to Help Someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

If someone you know is struggling with GAD, the best thing you can do is to listen actively without judgment, encourage open communication, and validate their feelings. Offer reassurance and help them challenge negative thoughts. Be patient and accommodating, respecting their boundaries. Educate yourself about GAD, and encourage professional help when necessary.

“Many people often hear with their ears, but they don’t listen,” says Williams. “If you are actively listening, you can usually look for the warning signs.”

Communicating with Someone who has Generalized Anxiety Disorder

When talking with someone who is struggling with GAD, use active listening skills and validate their feelings. Avoid minimizing or dismissing their concerns, and offer reassurance and empathy. Be clear, concise, and calm in your communication, and respect their need for space or time-outs when necessary.

Supporting a Loved One with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Supporting a loved one with GAD involves creating a nurturing environment and facilitating their treatment journey. It’s important to understand your own limitations, and when it’s time to encourage them to speak with a professional.

“I know it sounds cliché but ask them how they feel when these things are happening or how long has it been going on,” says Williams. “Depending on their responses, be honest and say ‘Hey, I think you may do a little better if you talk with a professional. I love listening to you and I will support you in any way that I can. But, I’m not a professional and I think you need more than a listening ear right now to truly feel better.'”

Self-Care for Caregivers of Someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Caring for someone with GAD can be emotionally demanding, requiring self-care for caregivers. Prioritize your own well-being by setting boundaries, seeking support from friends or support groups, and taking breaks when needed. Engage in activities you enjoy, practice stress management techniques, and prioritize your physical and emotional health. Remember, you can better support others when you take care of yourself.

Resources for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

If you or someone you know is struggling with GAD, there are many resources available that can help mitigate symptoms and cope with excessive anxiety and worry.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Support Groups

Support groups provide individuals with GAD a platform to connect, share experiences, and receive support from others who understand their challenges. These can take place online and in-person. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides an online search tool to help you find the right group for you.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Books and Websites

Books and reputable websites can be valuable resources for individuals seeking further information on GAD. Williams suggests those struggling with GAD try “Unbothered” by Case Kenny, a 60-day journal with daily prompts to help you work through your thoughts and prevent overthinking.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Apps and Tools

There are various applications and tools designed to support individuals with GAD. Williams recommends the FINCH app, which provides you with a “self-care pet.” Users take care of their pets by taking care of themselves with goals like washing their face or brushing their teeth, doing yoga, or grabbing a coffee with a friend.

Finding a Mental Health Professional for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Working with a qualified mental health professional can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals who are struggling with GAD. They can help you understand where your worries are coming from and provide tools and strategies that’ll help you control excessive worry and anxiety.

Addressing GAD with Grow Therapy

GAD is a prevalent mental health condition that affects millions of individuals worldwide. Unlike normal worrying, persistent and excessive worry can significantly impact daily functioning, damage relationships, and destroy your quality of life. If you find yourself constantly worrying about the future, feeling on edge, and experiencing a lingering sense of unease, you’re not alone.

Managing GAD is a journey, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. By arming yourself with knowledge, seeking support, and implementing effective strategies, you can navigate the challenges of GAD and cultivate a fulfilling life that embraces peace and well-being.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be suffering from the effects of GAD, Grow Therapy’s team of expert therapists are here to help. Visit today to find a therapist who can help you navigate the complexities of mental health.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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