Many of us experience anxiety at some point in our lives. In fact, anxiety is a normal and common response to a wide range of stressful life events such as having financial problems, moving, and changing jobs.
However, when your anxiety symptoms become persistent, excessive, and easily triggered by things that don’t interfere with your life, you could be struggling with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People with GAD are usually overly concerned with family, work, money, health, and other issues.
You can develop a generalized anxiety disorder as a child or adult, and living with this condition can be quite challenging. In many cases, GAD occurs along with other mood and anxiety disorders.
Fortunately, you can manage GAD with proper help from a medical professional. However, recognizing symptoms and seeking help as early as possible is critical to successful treatment.
This article discusses some of the common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, risk factors, and some of the treatment options available for you. Read on to learn more.
Understanding the Difference Between Normal Worry and GAD
The truth is that worries, fears, and doubts are part of our daily lives. It is natural to feel anxious about your current financial situation after losing a job or being hit with an unexpected bill. You can also feel anxious about an upcoming examination, your health and other things.
The difference between normal worry and generalized anxiety disorder is that the worrying involved in GAD is excessive, persistent, disruptive, and intrusive. You cannot control it, making you extremely upset and stressed.
You will also discover that your worrying significantly disrupts your social life, job, and other activities. You worry about all sorts of things, and your mind is full of negative thoughts.
Sometimes, the thought of just getting through the day triggers anxiety. At times, you may end up struggling with physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches as a result of anxiety.
People struggling with GAD tend to avoid certain situations because they feel like they cannot take advantage of the opportunities due to their worries. Some have difficulty carrying out even the simplest daily activities when their condition is severe.
Causes and Risk Factors
The exact cause of GAD is unknown. However, medical professionals believe that the condition may occur as a result of a combination of several factors, including:
- Personality: People who are pessimistic or timid are more likely to develop GAD. Research also shows a strong relationship between neuroticism and GAD. Neuroticism is a personality trait wherein people view the world as an unsafe and threatening place.
- Genetics: Having a family history of GAD can increase your risk of developing it. For instance, if one of your biological parents, siblings or close relatives has GAD, you are more likely to develop the condition as well.
- Life experiences and environmental factors: Having a history of trauma such as bereavement or abuse may contribute to GAD. Additionally, being diagnosed with a chronic illness can increase your chances of developing GAD.
- Age: Although GAD can affect anyone at any age, the chances of developing it seems to be highest between childhood and middle age.
- Sex: Studies show that females are twice more likely to develop a generalized anxiety disorder than males.
- Brain chemistry and structure: Significant differences in brain functioning may also increase one’s risk of developing GAD. People with GAD also show differences in brain structure on neuroimaging studies conducted using MRI scans.
What Are the Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Not everyone with GAD has the same symptoms, but most people tend to experience a combination of behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms that fluctuate, becoming worse when the person is stressed.
Some of the physical symptoms of GAD include:
- Feeling restless, edgy, or jumpy most of the time.
- Feeling tense and having body aches.
- Sudden and severe headaches.
- Having trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much because you don’t want to wake up and face your problems.
- Stomachaches, diarrhea, and nausea.
Emotional symptoms of GAD include:
- Intrusive thoughts about things that make you feel anxious. You try to avoid thinking about them, but you cannot.
- Constant worries run through your mind.
- A pervasive feeling of apprehension.
- An inability to tolerate uncertainty. You want to be 100% sure of what will happen in the future.
- Feel like your anxiety is totally uncontrollable. Nothing can be done to stop it.
The behavioral symptoms of GAD include:
- Putting things off because you are feeling overwhelmed.
- Inability to relax, enjoy a good time, and be yourself.
- Avoiding situations that make you feel anxious.
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing on things.
GAD Symptoms in Children and Teenagers
Children and teenagers may show the symptoms listed above, but they may also be excessively worried about:
- Family members’ safety.
- Performance in school and sports events.
- Nuclear war, earthquakes or other catastrophic events.
- Lack of confidence.
- Always striving for approval.
How Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?
A mental health professional or doctor may diagnose GAD according to diagnosis criteria outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
To receive a GAD diagnosis, you must have excessive anxiety and worry that has lasted for not less than six months. You must also have difficulty controlling your anxiety and show at least three of the following symptoms (or one symptom in the case of kids):
- Tense muscles.
- Sleep problems.
- Difficulty concentrating.
These symptoms must not result from substance abuse or any other medical condition. To confirm that you are struggling with GAD and rule out physical conditions that may be causing your symptoms, your doctor may:
- Take a detailed family and medical history.
- Perform a comprehensive physical examination.
- Order blood or urine tests.
- Use a psychological questionnaire.
GAD Treatment Options
If you have tried to manage GAD on your own, but you still can’t seem to get over your worries and fears, it may be time to seek professional help.
However, you need to keep in mind that professional help doesn’t replace self-help. You still need to make several lifestyle changes to overcome your anxiety.
The three common treatment options for GAD are:
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder Mindfulness Therapies -DTB
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a relatively common type of psychotherapy that involves a combination of meditation, cognitive therapy, and the cultivation of a non-judgmental, present-oriented attitude referred to as “mindfulness.”
MBCT builds upon some of the principles of cognitive therapy by using a wide range of techniques such as mindfulness meditation that teaches GAD patients how to pay attention to their feelings and thoughts without being judgmental.
During MBCT sessions, patients may be taught the “three-minute breathing space technique” that focuses on three crucial steps, one at a time. The three steps are:
- Observe and monitor your overall experience.
- Focus on your breath more.
- Attend to your body and physical sensations.
Besides GAD, MBCT is also used to manage depression associated with medical illness, bipolar disorder, depression relapse prevention, low mood, and unhappiness.
Generalized anxiety disorder mindfulness therapies are designed to help patients review their thoughts without being caught up in what might happen in the future. It encourages clarity of thought and provides one with the right tools needed to let go of negative thoughts that may worsen their condition.
2. CBT for Generalized Anxiety Disorder
The first line of GAD treatment is usually cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The treatment features different components that target the different symptoms of GAD- behavioral, cognitive, and physical.
The primary goal of CBT for generalized anxiety disorder is to help reduce worrisome thoughts, calm the nervous system and teach the patient how to cope with stress effectively.
You will work closely with your therapist to create a comprehensive treatment plan that works best for you. A typical plan usually consists of 8–15-hour long sessions, but the number of sessions required will depend on the severity of your symptoms.
CBT for generalized anxiety disorder treatment may include homework outside the one-on-one therapy sessions to help you learn how to cope with different situations. You may also learn progressive muscle relaxation techniques to help alleviate the physical symptoms of GAD.
3. Anxiolytic Drugs -A Medical Intervention
Anxiolytic drugs, also known as anti-anxiety drugs, are used to treat different forms of anxiety disorders. These drugs work fast, but they can also be addictive. Because of this, your doctor can only prescribe them for short-term use.
They work by targeting the essential chemical messengers in your brain, which helps to reduce abnormal excitability. Common anxiolytic drugs include Lorazepam, Alprazolam, Clonazepam, and Benzodiazepines.
These drugs are also known to cause dizziness, slowed breathing, low blood pressure, and problems with memory. In most cases, the side effects are mild, but long-term use can make them worse.
If your doctor prescribes anxiolytic drugs for you, don’t be tempted to take more than what has been prescribed. An overdose can easily lead to coma or even death.
A generalized anxiety disorder may involve a wide range of symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is excessive and intrusive worrying that may disrupt your normal functioning.
Fortunately, GAD is treatable as long as you seek professional help before it is too late. There are also lots of things you can do to manage the condition. They include eating a healthy diet, exercising, practicing yoga, keeping a journal, avoiding unhealthy substance use, and prioritizing issues in life.