Introduction to Anxiety

Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD is characterized by excessive, exaggerated anxiety about everyday life events. People with symptoms of GAD tend to always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about health, money, family, work, or school. These worries are often unrealistic or out of proportion for the situation. Daily life becomes a constant state of unease, fear, and dread. Eventually, the anxiety so dominates the person’s thinking that it interferes with daily functioning.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural human reaction that serves an important basic survival function. It acts as an alarm system that is activated whenever a person perceives danger. When the body reacts to a potential threat, a person feels physical sensations of anxiety: a faster heartbeat and breath rate, tensed muscles, sweaty palms, nausea, and trembling hands or legs. These sensations are part of the body’s fight-flight response, which is caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals. This reaction prepares the body to make a quick decision to either stay and fight that threat or try to escape from it. It takes a few seconds longer for the thinking part of the brain (the cortex) to process the situation and evaluate whether the threat is real, and if it is, how to handle it. If the cortex sends the all-clear signal, the fight-flight response is deactivated and the nervous system can relax. If the brain reasons that a threat might last, feelings of anxiety and the physical symptoms listed above may linger, keeping the person alert. 

What Are the Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

GAD affects the way a person thinks, but the anxiety can lead to physical symptoms as well. Symptoms of GAD include:

  • Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
  • An unrealistic view of problems
  • Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea
  • The need to go to the bathroom frequently
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Trembling
  • Being easily startled
  • Other anxiety disorders (such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias)
  • Depression
  • Drug/alcohol abuse

What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Although the exact cause of GAD is not known, a number of factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental stressors, appear to contribute to its development.

Genetics: Some research suggests that family history plays a part in increasing the likelihood that a person will develop GAD. This means that the tendency to develop GAD may be passed on in families.

Brain chemistry: GAD has been associated with abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are special chemical messengers that help move information between nerve cells. If the neurotransmitters are out of balance, messages cannot travel through the brain properly. This can alter the way the brain reacts in certain situations, leading to anxiety.

Environmental factors: Trauma and stressful events, such as abuse, the death of a loved one, divorce, or changing jobs or schools may lead to GAD. The use of and withdrawal from addictive substances, including alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, could also worsen anxiety.

How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?

Anxiety disorders can be treated by both mental health professionals and therapists. A therapist can look at the symptoms someone is dealing with, diagnose the specific anxiety disorder, and create a plan to help the person get relief. A particular type of talk therapy called cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) is often used. In CBT, a person learns new ways to think and act in situations that can cause anxiety, and to manage and deal with stress. The therapist provides support and guidance and teaches new coping skills such as relaxation techniques or breathing exercises. Sometimes, but not always, medication is used as part of the treatment for anxiety.

How Common Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

About 4 million American adults suffer from GAD during the course of a year. It most often begins in childhood or adolescence, but can begin in adulthood. It is more common in women than in men.