Table of Contents
What is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?
Anxiety is a word that describes feelings of apprehension, concern, fear, 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 can also give you the energy to get things done in more normal but busy situations.
Anxiety can be a general feeling of worry, a sudden attack of panicky feelings, or a fear of a certain situation or object. Sometimes, anxiety can be out of control. You may feel a sense of dread and fear for no apparent reason. This kind of anxiety can disrupt your life.
Generalized anxiety disorder is ongoing anxiety that isn’t related to a particular event or situation. It can also be anxiety that is not “normal” about a situation. For instance, a person who has GAD may constantly worry about something that is unlikely to happen. They let these worries interfere with ability to function.
Women are more likely to have GAD than men. It usually begins to affect people when they are in their teens and early 20s.
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder
Most people worry from time to time. These occasional worries are normal. They don’t mean that you have GAD. If you have GAD, you worry so much that it interferes with your day-to-day life. You feel tense and worried more days than not. Other signs of GAD include:
- trouble falling or staying asleep
- muscle tension
- trouble concentrating
- getting tired easily
- restlessness, or feeling “keyed up” or on edge
- shortness of breath
- fast heartbeat
- dry mouth
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 that something else isn’t causing your symptoms. He or she will also 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 that 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. 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.
Sometimes, certain kinds of medicine may cause GAD. You could also 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. He or she will perform a physical exam to make sure a physical or medical condition is not 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 not a specific cause for GAD. This means it 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 to develop skills to cope with your anxiety. 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. They can recommend the treatment that is right for you.
Living with generalized anxiety disorder
People who have GAD can get better. If you take medicine for it, you may be able to stop taking it at some point in the future. 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 place and time to do your worrying. Make it the same place and time 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 general 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. Then you can get used to the idea of confronting the things that make you anxious before you actually do it.
- Use medicine, if it helps. Your doctor may give you medicine to help reduce your anxiety while you learn new ways to respond to the things that make you anxious. Many types of medicine are available. Your doctor will decide which medicine is right for you.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What treatment is best for me?
- How do I know what is causing my anxiety?
- Are there any lifestyle changes I should make?
- Should I change anything in my diet?
- What kind of exercise will help me?
- How can I stop worrying about everything?
- Do I also have depression?
- Will I have to take this medicine for the rest of my life?
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.