Someone with generalized anxiety disorder suffers from constantly worrying about multiple issues, even when there might not be a cause for concern.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is more than just worrying. However, when someone constantly expects the worst or worries about multiple issues, even when there is no real cause to be concerned, the individual may be experiencing a general anxiety disorder.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Unnecessary worry over situations or events characterizes generalized anxiety disorder. Everyone experiences realistic stressors sometimes with work or school or maybe an argument with a spouse. These worries can linger for days, and though they may feel very severe at the time, feeling this anxiety does not necessarily mean the individual has generalized anxiety disorder.

On the other hand, excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry about everyday life events with no obvious reasons for worry is something an individual may want to seek professional help to address. People with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder tend to always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about health, money, family, work or school. For people living with generalized anxiety disorder, daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear and dread. Sooner or later, the anxiety controls the person’s thinking, and it interferes with daily functioning, including work, school, social activities and relationships.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder vary in intensity from one person to another and, if untreated, the symptoms may take control of the person’s life. Anxiety levels may improve or worsen from day to day, allowing for windows of normal functioning before the anxiety suddenly increases in severity. Individuals may suffer from GAD if they are experiencing the following:

Physical Symptoms

  • Headaches, stomach aches, muscle aches or other unexplained pains
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Shakiness or twitching
  • Profuse sweating
  • Light-headedness and/or breathlessness
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Fatigue and irritability
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep

Additional Symptoms

  • Excessive anxiety about everyday tasks
  • Inability to control constant worries
  • Distress that is disproportionate to the situation
  • Inability to relax
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling on edge and startling easily
  • Overthinking or experiencing the tendency to jump to the worst possible conclusion

Additionally, individuals with GAD often have clinical depression or increased difficulties with substance abuse as well as other anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. GAD may cause significant distress in social, personal and career aspects of the individual’s life.

Symptoms in Children

Children and teenagers living with GAD may have similar worries as adults, though they may also experience additional stressors including:

  • Performing at school or sporting events
  • Lacking confidence and striving for approval
  • Concern for family members’ safety
  • Being late to events
  • Natural disasters or other catastrophic events
  • Feeling overly anxious to fit in
  • Wanting perfection in tasks they complete, often repeating in an effort to attain perfection
  • Having frequent stomachaches or other physical complaints
  • Avoiding school or social situations
  • Bullies

If a person feels that they’re worrying too much and realize that it’s interfering with their family, personal life, school or work, or if they are having suicidal thoughts, they should seek a professional for help. The worries are unlikely to merely go away on their own, and they may get worse over time without treatment.

Feelings of depression or anxiety can lead to suicidal thinking. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

It’s hard to detect a single generalized anxiety disorder cause; however, there are many factors linked to the disorder. Long-term stress, chemical imbalances or a family history of anxiety may increase the likelihood of an individual having GAD. Women are twice as likely as men to be affected. While the average age regarding the onset of GAD is 31 years old, the disorder develops gradually and can begin at any time in a person’s life. Generalized anxiety usually presents itself in childhood and indications of the disorder increase as the individual ages.

Some research suggests that family history contributes to an increased likelihood that an individual will develop general anxiety. However, the question is whether the condition is caused by hereditary chemistry in the brain. Generalized anxiety disorder associates with abnormal functioning of brain regions involved in thinking and emotion. These nerve cell connections may be faulty to and from the neurotransmitters leading to problems related to mood or anxiety. Of course, the neurotransmitters may be tweaked to improve the signal between the circuits with medicines, psychotherapies or other treatments to decrease the unwanted symptoms related to anxiety or depression.

Trauma and stressful events, such as abuse, the death of a loved one, divorce or changing jobs may contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. Other environmental factors, such as substance use or withdrawal from an addictive substance, may also lead to or aggravate general anxiety. Periods of heightened stress may worsen anxiety symptoms.

How is Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?

If symptoms of GAD are present, the patient’s physician should refer them to a mental health professional. The psychologist or psychiatrist will begin an evaluation by asking questions about the patient’s medical and psychiatric history. A mental health professional will conduct a generalized anxiety disorder test on the patient to rule out other possible disorders.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, someone needs to meet specific criteria, that occur for six months or more, for a generalized anxiety diagnosis. A diagnosis is involved usually if the individual has excessive anxiety and worry that is present most days and includes some of the following events or activities:

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleeping

A professional may make their diagnosis of GAD on reports of the intensity and duration of symptoms as well as problems with normal functioning due to the symptoms. The symptoms must interfere with daily living, such as causing personal conflicts in relationships or causing an individual to miss work or school.

Who Is at Risk for Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Women are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder twice as much as men are. People whose temperament is shy, naturally nervous or often negative may be more prone to generalized anxiety disorder than others. It is common for the disorder to run in families, so if general anxiety is present in the individual’s family tree, there is a greater risk of developing the disorder within their lifetime.

Sometimes the disorder can be brought on not by personality or genetics but by experiences the individual has been through. Traumatic or negative experiences at any point in an individual’s life may link to the onset of anxiety disorders. Chronic medical illnesses or other mental health disorders may also increase risk.

Lowering the risk of having GAD is possible through lifestyle changes. Development of a physically active routine as a stress reducer can improve mood and help the individual stay mentally and physically healthy. Trying to get the proper amount of sleep, eating healthy and avoiding alcohol and drugs will also allow one to lower their risk of GAD.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Statistics

The disorder most often begins in childhood or adolescence but has been known to begin in adulthood. GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or a little over 3 percent of the U.S. population, any given year, and women are twice as likely to be affected.

With so many individuals affected by GAD, help is available. The Recovery Village can help you or a loved one with a substance use disorder and any co-occurring disorders that accompany the addiction by providing the crucial treatment needed to maintain lifelong recovery. People who have co-occurring anxiety symptoms can receive help from one of The Recovery Village facilities located throughout the country. If you or a loved one has substance use disorder and anxiety, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative to begin the treatment process today.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Krisi Herron, LCDC
Krisi Herron is an Adjunct Psychology Professor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a freelance writer who contributes to several mental health blogs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.