What Are the Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry and anxiety over a variety of things and situations. The worry persists and cannot be reduced despite efforts to appease it. Common symptoms of generalized anxiety include difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, restlessness, and fatigue. Generalized anxiety impairs the ability to function in many areas of life and can cause resulting complications. It is treatable with medications and therapy.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a type of anxiety disorder that is not uncommon. Just over three percent of the population struggles with generalized anxiety in any given year, and women are affected at twice the rate that men are. About 18 percent of people struggle with any type of anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety can begin at any age, but the most common age range for onset of symptoms is from childhood to middle age. There is no known cause for anxiety disorders, but family history, excessive stress, and trauma are risk factors. With diagnosis and generalized anxiety disorder treatment, symptoms can be managed.

What Are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety is a normal feeling. Everyone feels anxious at time and, in certain circumstances, even extremely anxious. It is a feeling of being worried, nervous, or afraid, and is a typical and healthy reaction to stressful or frightening situations. These feelings should be temporary, though. When they persist and worsen, a person may be struggling with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders cause excessive anxiety and anxiety in response to situations that would not normally be expected to trigger these feelings. They also cause dysfunction in one or more areas of life. For instance, someone with an anxiety disorder may miss days of work because of anxiety over being around other people. The more severe the anxiety, the more it affects everyday life and quality of life.

There are several types of anxiety disorders outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual used by mental health professionals to make diagnoses. Some of these include social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, separation anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. The latter is characterized by feelings of anxiety that are not triggered by one particular thing or situation, but that occur generally and most of the time.

Signs of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental illness that causes excessive worry, nervousness, fear, and anxiety that persists beyond what is considered a normal amount of time. The anxiety is triggered by any number of things, and people with this condition worry about many different things that other people would not find troubling. In spite of efforts to stop worrying, the feelings persist. This type of anxiety goes well beyond normal worry and will not get better on its own; it requires professional generalized anxiety treatment. Potential symptoms of generalized anxiety are:

  • Worry, stress, nervousness, and fear that persists and that is more extreme than a situation warrants
  • Seeing normal situations as threatening
  • Being unable to let go of worries, obsessing over them
  • Being unable to relax, feeling worked up all the time
  • Struggling with uncertain situations
  • Needing to plan and control situations, considering the worst possible outcomes
  • Fear of making poor decisions, resulting in indecision
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, experiencing blankness

Physical Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is more than just an emotional state; it can also trigger physical symptoms. These may range from mild to severe depending on the level of anxiety. Some people diagnosed with generalized anxiety may rarely experience physical symptoms, while others have them often. Possible physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea and abdominal discomfort
  • Tremors and twitches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pains and tension
  • Startling easily

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Triggers Worry over Many Things

What makes generalized anxiety disorder different from some other types of anxiety disorders is that the worry that it triggers is related to many different things or situations. In contrast, social anxiety disorder causes distress over social situations, and agoraphobia causes anxiety over being in open, public places. Someone with generalized anxiety may worry about these situations but also about many others.

While this condition may trigger worry and anxiety over anything, there are some typical sources of anxiety. Some of the common sources of worry for adults with generalized anxiety disorder are work and job security, health, finances, household responsibilities, the well-being of children or other family members, and being late for things. Someone with general anxiety disorder may have a main worry but will also have anxiety related to multiple situations.

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Complications of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The emotional and physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can indicate that someone has this condition, but there are other signs as well. The excessive worry and nervousness that is caused by anxiety can leak into many areas of one’s life, triggering complications that range from mild to serious. Complications are especially likely in anyone who is not being treated for anxiety. Some of the possible complications someone living with generalized anxiety disorder may experience include:

  • Inability to complete tasks and resulting poor performance at work or school
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Lack of or reduced participation in activities and social events
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Other mental illnesses, including depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias
  • Chronic pain
  • Increased susceptibility to illness
  • Chronic medical conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome or migraines

What it Feels Like to Have Anxiety

Reading lists of symptoms and complications may be useful in determining that anxiety may be an issue, but it isn’t always easy to put into words what it means to struggle with generalized anxiety or other mental health conditions. It can help to consider it more from a personal perspective, to understand what it feels like to live with generalized anxiety:

  • You feel jittery and unsettled much of the time.
  • You worry about things that don’t seem to bother other people.
  • You feel as if something bad is going to happen—a sense of dread.
  • You always look for the worst-case scenario and try to relieve anxiety over it by doing excessive planning.
  • You avoid things because of fear and anxiety.
  • Anxiety causes you to lie awake at night worrying about things from the day and the next day.
  • You worry about everything but have no energy to do anything about the things that worry you.
  • No matter what you try, you can’t seem to relax.
  • You need to know what is going to happen and dread uncertainty.

Getting a Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis

Generalized anxiety disorder is difficult to live with, because it causes such distress and the complications can reach into all areas of life. Getting a diagnosis is important, because only then can a treatment plan be established that will help an individual learn to reduce anxiety and manage it. Mental health professionals can make a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis by performing a psychiatric evaluation to look for the criteria set by the DSM-5:

  • An excessive amount of anxiety is experienced on most days for at least six months
  • The anxiety must be caused by a number of different types of events, not just one or two specific things.
  • Anxiety must cause significant distress and impairment in functioning.
  • The anxiety and worry cannot be better explained or described by another mental illness, substance abuse, or a medical condition.

The anxiety and worry that occurs more days than not have to include at least three of six symptoms characteristic of the condition for it to be diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder:

  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Finding that the mind goes blank or that it is difficult to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Getting fatigued easily
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleeping, either staying asleep, falling asleep, or just sleeping poorly

There may be many other symptoms, but these are the diagnosable symptoms, and three or more of them must be present on most days for a diagnosis to be made.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is Treatable

Living with generalized anxiety disorder is very challenging, but it is treatable. With a good diagnosis from a professional, an individual can engage in a treatment plan that reduces and manages anxiety and allows greater control over one’s life. Both outpatient and inpatient treatment are options, but residential care provides the benefit of being able to truly focus on treatment for an extended period of time without distractions.

Treatment for generalized anxiety disorder usually involves behavioral therapies that help the patient learn to be more aware of negative thoughts and to take steps to change them. Treatment also often relies on anti-anxiety medications that help induce relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety. Managing anxiety also requires good social support and positive self-care that may include stress management, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle changes.

While living with generalized anxiety is difficult and causes symptoms that can feel overwhelming at times, there is hope for anyone with this condition. Recognizing the signs of anxiety is the first step, and the next is to reach out and ask for help. Only with a proper diagnosis from a mental health professional can an effective treatment plan be put in place.