Reviewed By: Barbara Rexer, DSW, LCSW, LCADC, CCS, ICCS, DRCC
Anxiety is an inevitable part of life. Just about everyone lives with some level of anxiety. Some people, however, experience anxiety in ways that can impact everyday life. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which affects about 3.1% of the population, is a medical condition characterized by feelings of persistent worry that are difficult to control. Read on to learn more about GAD and potential treatment.
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Generalized anxiety disorder differs from the feelings of anxiousness that many of us feel from time to time. Rather, GAD is a diagnosable medical disorder that can hinder one’s ability to function in daily life. Worries about finances, health, relationships or even vague feelings of dread that may not have a root cause can become so pervasive that they interrupt work, conversations, and everyday tasks. Oftentimes, individuals with GAD know their worries are unreasonable but have little control over their feelings.
A number of risk factors contribute to generalized anxiety disorder, including a family history of anxiety, childhood abuse, or trauma. For example, growing up with a parent who struggles with substance abuse. Likewise, your own substance use can become a risk factor. Tobacco, alcohol and drug use can all contribute to GAD. Your gender can also play a role. Women are more likely than men to develop the disorder.
Here are other factors that can increase your risk of GAD:
- Chronic illness
- Divorce or relationship trauma
- Lower education level
- Prolonged stress
- Co-occurring mental illness, such as depression
Although the experience of GAD varies from person to person, most will display at least some of these common symptoms. These include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Aches and pains
- Sweaty palms
In some cases, an individual may even suffer from neurological symptoms such as tingling or numbness in certain areas of the body. People with GAD may also be easily startled, sweat a lot, or seem on edge. You may also notice that individuals suffering with this type of anxiety will worry more than others about seemingly small things, such as being late.
What helps to distinguish GAD from other mental health disorders and the anxiety most of us feel at times is the severity of anxiety experienced and the duration. People with generalized anxiety disorder worry about a number of things all at once over several months’ time. Moreover, they are often not able to pinpoint the source of their anxiety.
Tips to Cope
If you are experiencing symptoms of GAD, start by visiting your doctor to discuss your concerns. The symptoms above could also be indicators of other serious health problems, and may also lead to other issues if left untreated. For example, untreated GAD may increase your likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. If you are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, there are things you can do to cope.
Here are lifestyle changes you can make to limit the effects of GAD:
- Exercise regularly
- Follow a healthy diet
- Get enough sleep
- Limit your caffeine intake
- Avoid smoking
- Practice yoga/meditation
- Find a friend or family member to talk to regularly
It’s also important to be mindful of the way you use alcohol. Many people turn to alcohol to help cope with their anxiety. However, drinking can actually worsen your symptoms. Although alcohol can take away immediate feelings of anxiety, it often leads to feelings of depression and increased anxiety when the effect wears off. Moreover, it can lead to dependence. If you struggle with alcohol use alongside anxiety, it is particularly important to seek out professional help.
For most people with GAD, coping mechanisms alone are not enough to manage the disorder long-term. Treatment programs typically use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and similar methods to help patients reframe negative thoughts with a new perspective. Therapists may also spend time teaching individuals with GAD how to regain a sense of calm through breathing exercises and meditation.
Some people may need medication along with therapy. Because many anti-anxiety medications can become habit-forming, it is important to take medication only under the care of a doctor. Common prescriptions for short-term anxiety include Xanax and Klonopin. Antidepressants, such as Cymbatla and Zoloft, are more often for longer-term treatment.
Notably, mixing anxiety medications with alcohol can cause serious health risks. Since many anti-anxiety medications are depressants, like alcohol, combining the substances can dangerously lower your heart rate, leading to unintentional overdose. Alcohol can also change the intended effect of a medication in a dangerous way. If you take anti-anxiety medication, talk to your doctor about the risks of drinking.
However you treat GAD, remember that lifelong recovery is a process. Beyond cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling, many people will need to develop coping mechanisms that help them maintain the right frame of mind. A number of apps and online programs can help, as can private online forums. It’s also important to build a supportive network of friends and family.
If you have questions about anxiety, we can help. Call the number below or ask a question in the chat box to learn about starting the road to recovery.
Anxiety Resource Center
Find more helpful information, downloads, and resources within these articles:
The Ultimate List of Free & Affordable Mental Health Resources
Coping with High-Functioning Anxiety
Guide to Anti-Anxiety Medications
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Written By: Sprout Editorial Team
The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.