What is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?
Anxiety is a word that describes feelings of apprehension, concern, nervousness, restlessness, or worry. Normal feelings of anxiety often serve as an “alarm system” that alerts you to danger. Your heart may beat fast. Your palms may get sweaty. Anxiety can provide an extra spark to help you get out of danger. It also can give you the energy to get things done in normal, busy situations. These occasional worries are normal.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is ongoing anxiety that isn’t related to a particular event or situation. It also can be anxiety that isn’t “normal” about a situation. For instance, a person who has GAD may constantly worry about something that’s unlikely to happen. These worries interfere with your day-to-day life.
Women are more likely to have GAD than men. GAD usually begins to affect people in their teens and early 20s.
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder
GAD usually has a gradual onset, so you may not recognize the symptoms as they build up. GAD may fluctuate or change over time. If you have GAD, you may feel tense and worried more days than not. Other symptoms include:
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Muscle tension
- Trouble concentrating
- Getting tired easily
- Restlessness, feeling “keyed up” or on edge
- Shortness of breath
- Fast heartbeat
- Dry mouth
- Stomach upset (such as diarrhea)
- Headaches, pains for no obvious reason
If you feel tense most of the time and have some or all of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. They will ask questions to make sure something else isn’t causing your symptoms. They also will perform a physical exam.
What causes generalized anxiety disorder?
Suppose the fire alarm goes off in your home. You race around frantically to find the fire. Instead, you find there is no fire. The alarm just isn’t working properly.
It’s the same with anxiety disorders. Your body mistakenly triggers your alarm system when there is no danger. Most of us have some stresses in life or things that cause us to feel stressed. But those with GAD have the “alarm” going off frequently or all the time, even if they cannot identify a trigger. This may be due to a chemical imbalance in your body. It may also be related to:
- An unconscious memory
- A side effect of a medicine
- An illness
You also could have symptoms if your thyroid gland is too active. Depression can also cause them. GAD sometimes runs in families.
How is generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and health history. They will perform a physical exam to make sure a physical or medical condition isn’t causing your symptoms. If your doctor doesn’t find any other reason for your symptoms, you may need to be treated for GAD.
Can generalized anxiety disorder be prevented or avoided?
There is no specific cause for GAD. This means it often can’t be prevented or avoided. The best thing to do is to address the symptoms as soon as possible. Then you can get started on a treatment plan and live a normal day-to-day life.
Generalized anxiety disorder treatment
People who have GAD must learn ways to cope with anxiety and worry. Your doctor can help you form a plan and develop skills to do so. The plan may include counseling, medicine, or both. Counseling can help you figure out what’s making you so tense. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to help you feel less anxious. Your doctor will recommend the treatment that’s right for you.
Living with generalized anxiety disorder
People who have GAD can get better. If you take medicine for it, you may not have to take it forever. Your doctor will tell you if it’s OK to stop taking your medicine.
The most important things are to talk about it, seek help, and take action. Action can help you gain a sense of control. The following are some tips on coping with anxiety:
- Control your worry. Choose a time and place to worry. Make it the same time and place every day. Spend 30 minutes thinking about your concerns and what you can do about them. Don’t dwell on what “might” happen. Focus more on what’s really happening. Then let go of the worry and go on with your day.
- Learn ways to relax. These may include activities such as yoga or a walk around the block.
- Breathe deeply. Follow these steps to take a break during your day to just breathe: Lie down on a flat surface. Place one hand on your stomach, just above your navel. Place the other hand on your chest. Breathe in slowly and try to make your stomach rise a little. Hold your breath for a second. Breathe out slowly and let your stomach go back down.
- Relax your muscles. Start by choosing a muscle and holding it tight for a few seconds. Then relax the muscle. Do this with all of your muscles, one part of your body at a time. Try starting with your feet muscles and working your way up your body.
- Exercise regularly. People who have anxiety often quit exercising. But exercise can give you a sense of well-being and help decrease feelings of anxiety.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep rests your brain as well as your body. It can improve your sense of well-being and your mood.
- Avoid alcohol abuse and drug abuse. It may seem that alcohol or drugs relax you. But in the long run, they make anxiety worse and cause more problems.
- Cut down on caffeine. Caffeine is found in chocolate, coffee, soft drinks, and tea. Caffeine may increase your sense of anxiety because it stimulates your nervous system. Also avoid over-the-counter diet pills and cough and cold medicines that contain a decongestant.
- Confront the things that have made you anxious in the past. Begin by just picturing yourself confronting these things. You can get used to the idea of confronting them before you actually do it.
- Use medicine if it helps.Your doctor may give you medicine to help reduce your anxiety while you learn ways to respond to it. Many types of medicine are available. Your doctor will decide which medicine is right for you.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do I know what’s causing my anxiety?
- How can I stop worrying about everything?
- What treatment is best for me?
- Will I have to take medicine for the rest of my life?
- Are there any lifestyle changes I should make?
- Should I change anything in my diet?
- What kind of exercise will help me?
- Do I have depression, too?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.