Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Causes, Effects, Symptoms & Treatment
Many people experience anxiety at some point in their lives, but chronic anxiety can interfere with your quality of life. While perhaps most recognized for behavioral changes, anxiety can also have serious consequences on your physical health.
Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, but they can be managed with proper help from a medical professional. Recognizing the symptoms is the first step.
The effects of anxiety on the body
While anxiety is part of most of our daily lives, anxiety may also help to increases your breathing and heart rate, concentrating blood flow to your brain, where you need it. This very physical response is preparing you to face an intense situation.
If it gets too intense, however, you might start to feel lightheaded and nauseous. An excessive or persistent state of anxiety can have a devastating effect on your physical and mental health.
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Anxiety disorders can happen at any stage of life, but they usually begin by middle age. Women are more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Stressful life experiences may increase your risk for an anxiety disorder, too. Symptoms may begin immediately or years later.
Types Of Anxiety
There are several types of anxiety disorders. They include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
GAD is marked by excessive anxiety for no logical reason. GAD is diagnosed when extreme worry about a variety of things lasts six months or longer. If you have a mild case, you’re probably able to complete your normal day-to-day activities. More severe cases may have a profound impact on your life.
Social anxiety disorder
This disorder involves a paralyzing fear of social situations and of being judged or humiliated by others. This severe social phobia can leave one feeling ashamed and alone.
About 15 million American adults live with social anxiety disorder, notes the ADAA. The typical age at onset is around 13. More than one-third of people with social anxiety disorder wait a decade or more before pursuing help.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD develops after witnessing or experiencing something traumatic. Symptoms can begin immediately or be delayed for years. Common causes include war, natural disasters, or a physical attack.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
People with OCD may feel overwhelmed with the desire to perform particular rituals (compulsions) over and over again, or experience intrusive and unwanted thoughts that can be distressing (obsessions). Common compulsions include habitual hand-washing, counting, or checking something. Common obsessions include concerns about cleanliness, aggressive impulses, and need for symmetry.
These include fear of tight spaces (claustrophobia), fear of heights (acrophobia), and many others. You may have a powerful urge to avoid the feared object or situation.
This causes panic attacks, spontaneous feelings of anxiety, terror, or impending doom. Physical symptoms include heart palpitations, chest pain, and shortness of breath. These attacks may occur at any time.
Anxiety disorder can cause other symptoms, including:
- Muscle tension
- Social isolation
Symptoms of GAD
Though people who suffer from GAD worry about the same things that other people do — relationships, money, health, work, etc. — they have a much higher level of worry that is nearly constant. The level of concern is not in sync with reality and is greatly magnified. Most people with GAD realize that their concerns are overblown, but they cannot seem to shake their anxiety, according to the NIMH.
Both children and adults can develop GAD, and symptoms can come on slowly, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“GAD patients have always been anxious to some degree, but an event such as a car accident, poor grades, relationship or work difficulties can enhance their anxiety,” she said.
The symptoms tend to ebb and flow but can be exacerbated during times of stress. What sets the worry of GAD suffers apart from normal stress is that the worry is intrusive, excessive, debilitating and persistent — lasting for more than six months, according to the NIMH.
Fatigue, nausea, muscle tension, nervousness, sweating, irritability and trembling are some of the physical symptoms of GAD, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Sleeplessness is another sign of GAD, because people with the disorder often feel as if they can’t stop their mind from racing, Duffey said. People with GAD can also be very indecisive or have a fear of making the wrong decision, can overthink and have difficulty concentrating or have the feeling that their minds are “going blank”
However, people with GAD are not gripped by an overwhelming fear and are typically able to function. However, some may be unable to perform even routine tasks during times when their symptoms are the worst, according to the NIMH.
Causes Of Anxiety
GAD may run in families, although as with all mental-health issues, the causes are typically a combination of biological and environmental factors, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“It is likely due to a combination of stress and environmental factors that contribute to the expression of genes in individuals who are born with the risk/vulnerability to develop the condition.” Andrew Gilbert, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Hallowell Center in New York. “Since GAD can emerge in adolescence, there are some interesting developmental/pediatric studies suggesting that individuals born with particular temperaments and/or wiring in their brains may be more vulnerable to develop GAD.”
Enduring a trauma, especially during childhood, is also linked to GAD, according to the Mayo Clinic. Those who experienced abuse or trauma as a child, including witnessing a traumatic event, are at higher risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder.
Those with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely than the general population to abuse alcohol or other substances at some point in their lives, according to the ADAA. About 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder, such as depression, have an alcohol or other substance-abuse disorder, according to the ADAA.
What are the Treatment for Anxiety
GAD can be treated with psychotherapy, medication or both, according to the NIMH. A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common method used to treat GAD and can be very helpful, according to the NIMH. This therapy teaches a patient new ways of thinking, behaving and reacting to situations.
Many GAD sufferers also benefit from self-help and support groups, where they can share their challenges and discuss coping mechanisms, according to the ADAA. While medication can be helpful for some GAD patients, treatment that emphasizes lifestyle factors, such as nutrition, exercise and establishing a routine.
“Don’t give up on treatment too quickly. Both psychotherapy and medication can take some time to work, ” the NIMH website states. “A healthy lifestyle can also help combat anxiety. Make sure to get enough sleep and exercise, eat a healthy diet, and turn to family and friends who you trust for support.”
Natural Ways to Reduce Anxiety
There are many natural ways reduce anxiety and help you feel better, including:
Eating a healthy diet: Diets rich in vegetables, fruits, high-quality meats, fish, nuts and whole grains can lower the risk of developing anxiety disorders, but diet alone is probably not enough to treat them.
Consuming probiotics and fermented foods: Taking probiotics and eating fermented foods have been associated with improved mental health.
Limiting caffeine: Excessive caffeine intake may worsen feelings of anxiety in some people, especially those with anxiety disorders.
Abstaining from alcohol: Anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse are strongly linked, so it may help to stay away from alcoholic beverages.
Quitting smoking: Smoking is associated with an increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Quitting is associated with improved mental health.
Exercising often: Regular exercise is linked to a lower risk of developing an anxiety disorder, but research is mixed on whether it helps those who have already been diagnosed.
Trying meditation: One type of meditation-based therapy called mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms in people with anxiety disorders.
Practicing yoga: Regular yoga practice has been shown to reduce symptoms in people diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but more high-quality research is needed.
Additional resources for anxiety findings:
More information on anxiety disorders, from NIMH.
What is Anxiety?
Tips for dealing with anxiety, from ADAA.
Screen yourself or a loved one for an anxiety disorder.
Download a brochure.
National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC)
Social Anxiety Stories on The Mighty
Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety
When Young People Suffer Social Anxiety Disorder: What Parents Can Do