What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Published On: July 30, 2020|Categories: Mental Health|
Woman with Anxiety Talking with Therapist

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined as persistent and excessive worry that is difficult to control and interferes with daily life. While it is normal to experience feelings of anxiety in daily life, those with GAD may worry when there is no apparent cause or reason. Another distinguishing factor of GAD is that people experience anxiety more days than not over several months.

GAD is a common disorder, affecting about 6.8 million adults according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Mental Health Treatment

Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Like many mental health disorders, the causes of GAD aren’t always clear. It’s likely that GAD is a combination of genetic, environmental, and biological factors.

  • Genetic: Heritability is around 30%, indicating that there is a genetic risk associated with GAD.
  • Environmental: Traumatic experiences may trigger anxiety. It’s also suggested that anxiety is a learned behavior. It may be modeled if a close family member or friend exhibits anxiety. 
  • Biological: Changes in brain chemistry, particularly with serotonin and dopamine, may lead to anxiety.

Signs of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

These are some common signs of GAD:

  • Excessive or persistent worry
  • Frequently expecting the worst
  • Difficulty dealing with uncertainty
  • Indecisiveness
  • Sleeping problems
  • Tiredness
  • Sweating
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches

Some studies have found that GAD symptoms can differ in men and women. Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions showed that women reported more anxiety symptoms than men. The same study cited that women reported symptoms like muscle tension and fatigue more frequently than men.

Learn more about signs of generalized anxiety disorder.

Diagnostic Criteria

Even if you recognize some of the symptoms in yourself or another person, it can be hard to distinguish between anxiety and worry. However, it’s important not to minimize how you feel.

If worry or stress begins to impact your quality of life, it may be time to talk to your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing.

For reference, here are the criteria that clinicians use to diagnose generalized anxiety disorder, as outlined in the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

  • Presence of anxiety or worry about a number of events or activities, lasting for at least 6 months, and occurring more days than not
  • The worry is difficult to control
  • Anxiety is associated with at least three of the following symptoms for adults, and at least one for children:
    • Restlessness or feeling on edge
    • Fatigue
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Irritability
    • Muscle tension or soreness
    • Difficulty sleeping
  • Anxiety or physical symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in areas of one’s life, like work or relationships

Treatment Options for Anxiety

Fortunately, symptoms of GAD are treatable. It’s all about finding the best treatment plan for you, which may include therapy, medications, or a combination of both.


Some common types of therapy for generalized anxiety include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
  • Biofeedback therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective types of therapy for many people who have anxiety disorders. The purpose of CBT is to address how our thoughts and beliefs affect the way that we feel. CBT for anxiety focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts and then changing how you respond to those thoughts.

This type of therapy can also help individuals recognize when they’re anxious and develop coping mechanisms.

Originally used to treat borderline personality disorder, there is evidence that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can be effective for treating anxiety. DBT is a type of cognitive therapy. In DBT, clients learn to accept their anxiety while also learning to manage it. DBT emphasizes mindfulness and emotion regulation.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is similar to DBT and CBT in that it focuses on accepting your anxiety rather than avoiding it. The goal is to reduce the struggle to control anxiety and participate in activities that align with your personal values. 

Biofeedback therapy encourages individuals to recognize their physiological responses when they are anxious. Biofeedback can help them learn relaxation techniques to manage these symptoms. For example, breath focus can help slow down breathing. Biofeedback is often used in combination with psychotherapy.


Medications are also known to help with anxiety symptoms. Here are some commonly prescribed medications for GAD.

  • Antidepressants: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are frequently used to treat anxiety symptoms. Most physicians will recommend an SSRI OR SNRI first before trying other medications.
  • Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines may be prescribed if panic attacks are present with anxiety. Because these drugs act quickly and may cause withdrawal symptoms, they usually aren’t prescribed for the long-term.
  • Azipirones: Azipirones like buspirone have fewer side effects than benzodiazepines. However, they may not be effective for people who have previously taken benzodiazepines.

Anxiety symptoms don’t go away immediately. It can take several weeks for therapy or medications to be effective. It’s important to talk with your doctor or therapist if you experience any new or persistent symptoms. They are there to help you find the treatment plan that works best for you.

 Pyramid Healthcare offers outpatient mental health treatment for adults and adolescents. Outpatient treatment may be ideal if you have mild symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder or recently completed a higher level of care. We are also able to provide teletherapy services for outpatient care. 

Contact Pyramid Healthcare to learn more about our mental health programming.

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