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The Basics of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorders can be confused with chronic stress. Stress is your body’s reaction to a specific situation or factor, such as pressure at work, a life-changing event, or a traumatic event. Anxiety is different from this type of situational stress because it persists even after the cause of the stress is over.

Generalized anxiety typically occurs when no or little exterior stress is present, and it’s extreme in nature. For example, it’s natural to worry about money or family. But someone with GAD may be unable to stop worrying. They may have anxiety that is extreme over small decisions or issues or constantly obsess over what might happen.

What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Obviously, stress can start anxiety and worry that can then develop into long-term issues and GAD. But the actual cause of generalized anxiety disorder — and why some people struggle with it while others do not — is unknown.

Research has shown that some factors may increase your risk of developing GAD. Those include:

  • Overall personality. People who are shy or reserved, especially as children, may be at greater risk of GAD.
  • Genetics and family. If your immediate family has an anxiety disorder, you may be at increased risks.
  • Environment. Some aspects of anxiety are learned behaviors that can be adopted from family role models or others over the years.
  • Brain chemistry. While the specifics are still unclear, research has shown there may be a correlation between brain chemistry and anxiety.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder by the Numbers

Anxiety disorders, in general, impact around 18.1% of the adult population of the United States. That makes them the most common mental health disorders for adults in the nation. And though these disorders are treatable, reportedly only 36.9% of people receive professional help with them.

Untreated anxiety can cause numerous issues, including greater risks for mental and physical health concerns. People who are struggling with anxiety disorders are up to five times more likely to make and attend doctor appointments. They’re around six times more likely to be treated in an inpatient setting for psychiatric issues.

When it comes to generalized anxiety disorder, some people are more at risk than others.

  • Around 3.4% of adult women deal with GAD each year compared to 1.9% of adult men.
  • GAD is most common in adults age 30 to 59.
  • Among adolescents, those aged 17 to 18 are more likely to deal with GAD than younger people.
  • Adolescent females are twice as likely to suffer from GAD than adolescent males.

Signs and Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Being stressed today or even worrying about a very specific type of thing isn’t necessarily a sign of generalized anxiety disorder. Everyone gets worried or stressed about things. Someone who has GAD has other symptoms, which might include some of the below.

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Constant feeling of nervousness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to control worries and nerves
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, including stomach aches, headaches, and muscle soreness
  • Difficult swallowing
  • Sweating
  • Feeling faint or light-headed
  • Frequent need to use the restroom
  • Overly sensitive startle reflexes

The types of things someone worries about and the degree they worry about them can also be a sign of GAD. Adolescents might worry to an obsessive degree about how well they are doing in school and extracurriculars. They might also worry about things that are completely out of their control, such as war or natural disasters. Adults might worry to this degree about anything related to their lives, including finances or just getting the housework done regularly.

Because more than one type of anxiety disorder exists, and because it can be difficult to understand whether you’re dealing with life in the moment or GAD, it’s a good idea to talk to a professional if you’re experiencing these symptoms or worried about your mental health.

Treatment for General Anxiety Disorder

Your doctor or other mental health professional can help you understand what type of anxiety you might be dealing with and what your treatment options are. Typical go-to options providers turn to when someone is dealing with GAD include psychotherapy and medication.

One popular form of psychotherapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy focuses on training your brain and learning new coping mechanisms to change the way you think and react to certain situations. For people who have developed GAD through a combination of their own behaviors and learned behaviors, CBT can help them reduce those negative thought processes and engage in more helpful coping mechanisms.

In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help someone deal with generalized anxiety disorders. Medications used in the treatment of GAD can include benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac or Zoloft. Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, such as Effexor, might also be used.

The exact treatment and medications involved in any general anxiety disorder treatment should be decided with the help of a doctor or licensed clinical therapy practitioner. These professionals can help you understand what types of treatments might be best for you and monitor those treatments as you work through your GAD.

Depending on the severity of your anxiety disorder, your treatment providers may recommend that you attend:

  • Residential treatment, staying overnight in a facility for a certain amount of time to concentrate on treating and learning about your disorder
  • Intensive outpatient treatment, which involves therapy and other treatment methods a few times a week for several hours each day
  • General outpatient treatment, which might require you to attend group and/or individual therapy weekly and follow up with your doctor about medications

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

  • The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a list of anxiety disorders, along with fact sheets for each, to help you better understand the complexity of these issues.
  •, a publication of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, offers a list of helpful links about a range of anxiety disorders.
  • Mental Health America provides an online self stress screener to help you understand your stress levels.
  • The ADAA offers a free screening tool to help you understand whether you might need to talk to someone about your anxiety.

Disclaimer: This guide is provided for informational purposes and does not offer treatment guidance or recommendations. If you are struggling with anxiety or worried about your mental health for any reason, reach out to your medical doctor, therapist, or a community mental health clinic for assistance, additional information, and recommendations for treatment.