Anxiety, as an emotion, is not always a “condition.” It’s a normal part of our emotional life. However, when you experience extreme anxiety, it could be a condition. One that makes life taxing and generally worrisome.
If you feel an exaggerated response to everyday events or ongoing anxiety, you may have General Anxiety Disorder (or GAD). As you’ll see, GAD is very common. Meanwhile, its symptoms are often brushed off and its causes remain open to debate.
What causes GAD?
Like other mental health conditions, the exact cause is not fully understood. Factors such as genetics and temperament are believed to play a role. But environmental stresses can also trigger or exacerbate GAD. These stresses include:
- Childhood trauma
- Physical and/or sexual abuse
- Mental abuse
- Death of a loved one
- Loss of a job
- Severe or prolonged periods of stress
- Overuse of everyday stimulants like caffeine and sugar
- Obsession with cell phone or computer use
- Overuse of social media
Since GAD often begins in childhood, learned behavior may play a role too. For example, anxious parents can unintentionally model such behavior. Also, a pattern of anxiety could begin when children are teased, mocked or bullied.
8 Emotional Symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder
- Excessive worrying
- Worrying about excessive worry
- Feeling of dread or impending doom
- Sense of being on “high alert”
- Feeling powerless over the worry
- Obsessing over one’s behavior and appearance
- Always expecting the worst
8 Behavioral Symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder
- Big reactions to small events
- Tough time making decisions
- Procrastination; putting things off because of feeling overwhelmed
- Avoiding or withdrawing from relationships
- An inability to concentrate or just blanking out
- Hard time relaxing or letting go
- Consuming too much alcohol, marijuana or cigarettes
8 Physical Symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder
- Sleep issues
- Easily startled
- Muscle aches, muscle tension
- Digestive problems like IBS, nausea, or diarrhea
- Physical trembling
- Shaky voice
How common is GAD?
As you might expect after reading the lists above, this is sort of a tricky question. Roughly 6 to 7 million American adults suffer from GAD each year. This, of course, doesn’t factor in non-adults. It also doesn’t take into account all those who may not seek medical help. We may not see these as alarming symptoms if we grow so used to being thought of as “nervous” or “edgy” or “shy.”
GAD can begin in adulthood but usually, begins in childhood or adolescence. Either way, twice as many women than men suffer from this condition.
How is GAD treated?
You may first want to rule out a physical cause for your symptoms. Hormonal imbalances such a hyperthyroidism, excessive caffeine or side effects from medication are a few things that can cause you to feel more anxious. Once GAD is the diagnosis, a primary care physician or psychiatrist may prescribe therapy and/or medications such as:
- Anti-anxiety medications
Other options include:
- Relaxation techniques
- Stress management classes
- Yoga, Tai Chi, etc.
- Mindfulness meditation
Research has shown therapy to be a very effective choice for those with General Anxiety Disorder. Working one-on-one with a therapist enables the person with GAD to identify patterns and root causes. Working together, you can create both short term and long-term strategies.
One common approach involves examining specific thoughts and some of those “worst case scenarios.” Thoughts that fuel fear can be identified. Then they can be countered to disprove them or at least reduce their power. Also, when worst case scenarios are broken down, they may no longer cause anxiety.
Another common approach is to learn to move toward the anxiety rather than try to reduce or avoid it. This involves bringing awareness to body sensations with curiosity until they lessen or taper off. This builds courage and the ability to tolerate unpleasant sensations.
When deeper emotions are hidden beneath the anxiety, experiential approaches such as Gestalt or Focusing may be used to resolve the deeper feelings and issues. You needn’t live a life ruled by worry or pervasive fear. If you suspect you or someone you love is experiencing GAD, take measures to seek help and experience freedom and relief soon.