Generalized anxiety disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 18, 2016
StartDiseasesGeneralized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental disorder that prohibits individuals from getting through their day without worrying severely. Whereas it is natural for people to experience anxiety from time to time, people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder often have no reason to worry yet do so with debilitating consequences for their daily life.


Definition & Facts

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized when an individual has a persistent and irrational worry or stress about everyday things. Those with generalized anxiety disorder often worry to the point where they have difficulty completing necessary tasks. Women are twice as likely than men to develop general anxiety disorder, but there are still almost 7 million people, or over 3% of the American population, who suffer from GAD.

Generalized anxiety disorder can happen at any stage of the individual's life but most often appears in the thirties. It is important to remember that generalized anxiety disorder is not a rational fear or anxiety, but rather an inability to stop worrying about things the individual has no reason to worry about.

Symptoms & Complaints

The symptoms an individual with generalized anxiety disorder experiences greatly depends on how severe their anxiety is. If the individual has a relatively mild case of generalized anxiety disorder, he or she may be able to function properly through daily activities and be successful in a job. On the other end of the spectrum, individuals with a severe case of generalized anxiety disorder may have an extremely difficult time completing the most basic everyday tasks, and may even find it difficult to leave their own homes.

Physical symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder include headaches, fatigue, irritability, twitching, shortness of breath, and hot flashes. Other physical symptoms include an inability to sleep and difficulty concentrating.


The exact cause of generalized anxiety disorder is relatively unknown. Generalized anxiety disorder may be a hereditary condition passed down from generation to generation. One can also develop generalized anxiety disorder from outside stressors, growing up in an overly stressful environment, or undergoing a traumatizing experience that caused an irrational fear of the world. The death of a loved one, going through a divorce, or coming off an addiction are stressful situations known to increase the possibility of developing generalized anxiety disorder.

Those who experience a chemical imbalance in their brain are also likely to develop generalized anxiety disorder. If there is a disruption in the pathways of certain brain regions, the individual may find problems handing anxiety or other moods, contributing to generalized anxiety disorder.

Diagnosis & Tests

The cause behind the individual's generalized anxiety disorder will determine how the condition is diagnosed, although the criteria for diagnosis is consistent across all possible causes. First, the individual's anxiety must suffer from debilitating stress for at least six months. The individual should also demonstrate at least one physical symptom. Finally, the individual's anxiety should interfere with more than one area of his or her life, such as having intense anxiety about work, school, and money.

The tests to diagnose generalized anxiety disorder are usually a series of interviews with a psychologist or other mental health specialist. While doing tests, the doctor should first check for similar anxiety conditions, such as panic disorder or phobic anxiety disorders. If the individual fits these criteria and cannot be diagnosed with a similar anxiety disorder, they can be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

Treatment & Therapy

Generalized anxiety disorder is usually treated through psychotherapy visits and with medication, although the level of each will depend on the individual. Cognitive behavior therapy, which teaches the individual a different way of thinking and reacting, is a great form of therapy for generalized anxiety disorder.

On the medication side of treatment, a doctor may prescribe an individual with generalized anxiety disorder with anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants. Antidepressants have the ability to medicate generalized anxiety disorder, but may take longer than anti-anxiety medications to show they are working and also come with a number of potential side effects that may be dangerous to the individual taking them.

Practicing relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation can also help an individual with generalized anxiety disorder find peace with their stressful thoughts. Depending on the severity of the generalized anxiety disorder, some individuals may only need psychotherapy or medication, but not both. In the most severe cases, a rigorous treatment schedule may be given to help the individual overcome his or her anxiety.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

If an individual knows generalized anxiety disorder runs in his or her family, there are a number of precautions the individual can take such as avoiding potentially anxiety-inducing substances, like caffeine or nicotine. They should also be aware of their anxiety and see a doctor if it becomes overwhelming.

While generalized anxiety disorder will not be diagnosed until the individual is suffering debilitating anxiety for more than six months, a doctor can still assist the individual through relaxation exercises or prescribe medication if it seems appropriate. It may also help individuals with anxiety to keep a journal of their daily activities. Journaling allows the individual to identify their stressors and the activities that help them relax.