Anxiety Disorders Guides & Articles

Leigh Morgan
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Erin George, MFT
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What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

It's natural to worry about things from time to time. When that worry becomes persistent, however, it can interfere with work, school, and other activities. An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that causes someone to respond to certain situations with dread, fear, or excessive worry. 1Anxiety disorders make it difficult to get through each day without feeling out of control.

Medical professionals classify several conditions as anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobia-related disorders, and separation anxiety. 2 Panic disorder causes an individual to have frequent panic attacks, which cause sweating, rapid heartbeat, tingling, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Social anxiety disorder is characterized by an intense fear of being judged by other people.

Phobias are intense fears of people, animals, situations, or objects. Common phobias include dogs, clowns, bats, spiders, and heights. People with separation anxiety have an intense fear of being separated from a parent or another important figure.

Anxiety disorders are extremely common, affecting 19.1% of all Americans. 3 These disorders also have a significant impact on a person's loved ones. Someone with anxiety may be overly dependent on family members or isolate themselves from others, making it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.

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What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a condition that causes someone to worry excessively about a wide range of subjects. This worry occurs on most days of the month and must last for at least 6 months to meet the criteria for a GAD diagnosis. 4 The anxiety caused by GAD interferes with every aspect of a person's life.

For example, excessive worry about work may cause someone with GAD to turn down a promotion or avoid valuable networking opportunities. Students who worry excessively about their grades may perform worse than their peers on standardized tests or other assessments. 5 At home, GAD may cause someone to worry about how family members perceive them or rely heavily on family members for emotional support.

People with GAD tend to worry about many of the same subjects. In children and adolescents, GAD may cause excessive worry regarding grades, athletic performance, the health of family members, or the potential for a natural disaster or other catastrophe. Adults with GAD frequently worry about their job performance, finances, and health. This disorder also causes anxiety regarding household chores, being late for work or social events, and the health of loved ones.

What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Researchers don't know exactly what causes anxiety disorders, but certain risk factors make it more likely that someone will develop the condition. One of those risk factors is exposure to negative events, such as physical abuse, medical trauma, or severe auto accidents. These events may change the way someone copes with stressful circumstances. GAD is also more common in people who have relatives with anxiety or other mental health conditions. In someone who's already been diagnosed with GAD, caffeine, thyroid problems, abnormal heart rhythms, and other conditions can make anxiety worse.

What Are Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

GAD causes both physical and psychological symptoms. Fatigue, muscle tension, sweating, nausea, and difficulty sleeping are some of the most common physical indicators. 6 In addition to persistent worry, someone with GAD typically has at least one of the following psychological symptoms:

  • Indecisiveness
  • Inability to stop worrying, even when it interferes with daily functioning
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Feeling "on edge"
  • Thinking of the worst-case scenario in every situation
  • Trouble dealing with uncertainty

When someone with GAD isn't worrying about themselves, they may be worrying about family members or friends. For example, someone with this disorder may constantly worry that their spouse is going to get into a serious car accident.

How Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?

To diagnose GAD, a medical professional starts by performing a physical examination. They may also order lab tests to rule out thyroid disease and other medical conditions that cause anxiety. Once other conditions have been ruled out, the medical professional asks detailed questions about the individual's mental health and uses questionnaires to gather more information about their symptoms. 7 They compare those symptoms to the list of GAD criteria presented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is a reference handbook that mental health professionals use to make accurate diagnoses.

What Is the Best Treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

GAD typically responds best to a combination of medication and talk therapy. Some antidepressants ease the symptoms by balancing certain chemicals in the brain and can help treat anxiety. These medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). 8 Benzodiazepines help reduce anxiety, but they can be habit-forming, so they're not intended for long-term use.

Talk therapy gives people with GAD the support they need to address their excessive worry and improve their daily functioning. This type of therapy also benefits people with high-functioning anxiety, which is characterized by appearing confident and in control, even when dealing with an excessive amount of worry. 9

How to Cope With a Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis

After receiving a GAD diagnosis, it's helpful to cut back on activities known to make anxiety worse. This includes consuming caffeine and using tobacco products. It's also important to exercise regularly, as physical activity helps relieve some of the stress that contributes to persistent worry. For some people, keeping a journal makes it easier to identify anxiety triggers and harmful behavioral patterns. 1 Anxiety support groups are also a good source of information and advice, especially for individuals who live alone or don't have a strong family support network.

How to Help Someone With a Generalized Anxiety Diagnosis

People with GAD benefit from having supportive friends and family members, so listening to their concerns and validating their feelings can help them feel safe and supported. It's also important not to minimize the feelings of someone with GAD. Their worry may be out of proportion to what's happening, but GAD makes it difficult to control emotional responses to stressful circumstances. For some people, it's helpful to have an accountability partner or a person who can offer encouragement and motivation. Loved ones can serve as accountability partners, making it easier for a person with GAD to achieve their goals. To learn more, visit How to Find Help Treating an Anxiety Disorder.