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What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Anxiety is a perfectly normal emotion, but if feelings of overwhelm or dread are bringing your life to a grinding halt, you may be dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

GAD can develop in childhood or manifest as you reach adulthood. Recent studies show that women are twice as likely to experience Generalized Anxiety Disorder as men. Not nearly enough people take steps to treat GAD.

Your symptoms of GAD may be similar to those seen in other anxiety disorders, including panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other types of social anxiety.

Despite similarities, all these conditions are actually quite different both in nature and in treatment approaches.

Is GAD a recognized serious mental condition?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) classifies Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a serious mental condition. GAD requires specialized treatment to manage it effectively.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects 6.8 million adults in the United States. However, only 43.2% of people with the condition are receiving treatment. In teens, the National Institutes of Mental Health estimate that 2.2% of adolescents struggle with GAD, and .09% are severely impaired by their anxiety.

A busy businesswoman with anxiety holding her face in her hand working home office

What are the most common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder?

Most people who have Generalized Anxiety Disorder present with one or more of the following physical or emotional symptoms:

  • Feelings of restlessness, being “wound up”, or “on edge”
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Experiencing frequent headaches, muscle aches, muscle tension, stomachaches, or unexplained pains
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry or dread
  • Sleep problems – typically finding it hard to fall or stay asleep

Getting a physical examination from a healthcare provider can rule out any underlying medical condition that may be causing your symptoms.

How is generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing daily bouts of persistent worry, it can interfere with your ability to perform basic tasks at home, school, or work. People with generalized anxiety don’t just experience these feelings in response to an acute situation – like an unexpected bill, stressful work environment, or other common stress event.

People with GAD may feel anxious all the time, even when there’s no apparent reason. For adults, the criteria for diagnosis is to have at least three persistent, long-term symptoms that interfere with daily life over a span of six months. In teens or children, only one symptom experienced over 6 months is required for a generalized anxiety diagnosis according to the DSM-5. This timeline allows a provider to determine that you aren’t having the expected response to a stressful, short-term situation.

Therapists can help with short-term anxiety, but you won’t receive a diagnosis of GAD in that instance. At Elite DNA, we take a holistic approach to developing your treatment plan. We look at everything such as your sleeping habits, lifestyle, and what your body and mind are experiencing. Our mental health professionals can address each of these areas. Typically, a treatment plan will include therapy, psychiatry services and, as needed, medication.

What is the main cause of generalized anxiety disorder?

Like many mental health conditions, Generalized Anxiety Disorder can be caused by lifestyle choices or environmental factors. There is even a growing body of evidence that there are biological or genetic causes of anxiety.

That said, there still isn’t a scientific consensus on what causes GAD to develop in children, teens, or adults.

Why did I develop generalized anxiety disorder?

First, it’s important to understand there are identified risk factors that play a role in who may develop Generalized Anxiety Disorder in response to stressful life events or other triggers.

If you:

  • Experienced shyness or distress as a child when placed in a new environment or situation
  • Repeated exposure to negative, stressful, or dangerous events
  • Substance use
  • Close biological relatives with a history of anxiety or other related mental disorders

You may even have a physical condition that can contribute to developing generalized anxiety.

If you have a:

  • thyroid condition
  • Heart condition like arrhythmia

you may be at higher risk for GAD.

Depression can increase symptoms of anxiety, too. You may have an anxious response to social situations, intense fears, specific phobias, or even physical symptoms if you’re dealing with major depression.

When you consider the full range of symptoms of these two mental health conditions, you can see how closely related and common they are.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in every six individuals will experience depression in their lifetimes. Anxiety and depression can have many root causes — physical, emotional, and/or environmental.

How is GAD treated?

Successful treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is facilitated by a team of trained counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists using many care modalities.

Every person responds differently to treatment, so your care plan may include individual or group therapy, medication, or a combination of different therapies.

Your provider may recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as a way to train yourself to identify and then react differently to your specific triggers. This new way of thinking can help reduce anxiety response in some people.

Therapists can provide you with a range of tools that are designed to help you cope with stressful situations without spiraling into an anxiety attack. You may try psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, or even mindfulness therapies to help you work through your anxiety.

Several classes of medication are also used to successfully manage GAD. A psychiatrist may prescribe:

  • SSRIs, especially if your anxiety is paired with depression, since this type of medication works on pathways in the brain that alleviate feelings of melancholy by making more serotonin available.
  • Anxiolytic (commonly known as buspirone) which has been shown to relieve anxiety, tension, and promote more restful sleep.
  • Other antidepressants that have shown effectiveness in treating anxiety in teens and adults.

All of these medications work on brain chemistry and mechanisms in different ways and some have side effects that you will want to discuss with your provider.

Beyond therapy and medication, exercise, relaxation, and stress management techniques can all play a part in getting better.

Can I be successfully treated for generalized anxiety disorder via telehealth?

In many cases, you can get an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder through virtual appointments, known as telehealth. Online therapy options give you the flexibility to fit your anxiety treatment into your schedule. 

The American Psychological Association has determined that virtual mental health care is just as effective as in-person care. 

Our virtual mental health therapy and psychiatry appointments use a secure, live video connection. Every session is as confidential and HIPAA-compliant as an in-office appointment.

Different Types of Anxiety Disorders

  • Panic Disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorders

Related Conditions to Explore

Substance Use

View Substance Use

Depression: Hope and Healing

View Depression: Hope and Healing
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