Generalized Anxiety Disorder
“I always thought I was just a worrier. I’d feel keyed up and unable to relax. At times it would come and go, and at times it would be constant. It could go on for days. I’d worry about what I was going to fix for a dinner party, or what would be a great present for somebody. I just couldn’t let something go.”
“I’d have terrible sleeping problems. There were times I’d wake up wired in the middle of the night. I had trouble concentrating, even reading the newspaper or a novel. Sometimes I’d feel a little lightheaded. My heart would race or pound. And that would make me worry more. I was always imagining things were worse than they really were. When I got a stomachache, I’d think it was an ulcer.”
“I was worried all the time about everything. It didn't matter that there were no signs of problems, I just got upset. I was having trouble falling asleep at night, and I couldn't keep my mind focused at work. I felt angry at my family all the time.”
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
All of us worry about things like health, money, or family problems. But people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are extremely worried about these and many other things, even when there is little or no reason to worry about them. They are very anxious about just getting through the day. They think things will always go badly. At times, worrying keeps people with GAD from doing everyday tasks.
Generalized anxiety disorders affect about 3.1% American adults age 18 years and older (about 18%) in a given year, causing them to be filled with fearfulness and uncertainty. The average age of onset is 31 years old.
GAD affects about 6.8 million American adults, including twice as many women as men. The disorder develops gradually and can begin at any point in the life cycle, although the years of highest risk are between childhood and middle age.
Signs & Symptoms
People with GAD can’t seem to get rid of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms that often accompany the anxiety include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, having to go to the bathroom frequently, feeling out of breath, and hot flashes.
GAD develops slowly. It often starts during the teen years or young adulthood. Symptoms may get better or worse at different times, and often are worse during times of stress.
When their anxiety level is mild, people with GAD can function socially and hold down a job. Although they don’t avoid certain situations as a result of their disorder, people with GAD can have difficulty carrying out the simplest daily activities if their anxiety is severe.
GAD is generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both.
Psychotherapy. A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavior therapy is especially useful for treating GAD. It teaches a person different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations that help him or her feel less anxious and worried.
Medication. Our doctors may also prescribe medication to help treat GAD. Two types of medications are commonly used to treat GAD—anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants. Anti-anxiety medications are powerful and there are different types. Many types begin working right away, but they generally should not be taken for long periods.
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they also are helpful for GAD. They may take several weeks to start working. These medications may cause side effects such as headache, nausea, or difficulty sleeping. These side effects are usually not a problem for most people, especially if the dose starts off low and is increased slowly over time.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms can also be useful in this regard, but any advice received over the Internet should be used with caution. Talking with a trusted friend or a member of your family can also provide support, but it is not a substitute for care from a mental health professional.
Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. There is preliminary evidence that aerobic exercise may have a calming effect. Since caffeine, certain illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, they should be avoided.
The family is very important in the recovery of a person with an anxiety disorder. Ideally, the family should be supportive but not help perpetuate their loved one’s symptoms. Family members should not trivialize the disorder or demand improvement without treatment.
Our doctors review the different treatment options that they feel are be best for each individual. If they feel that medication may be necessary, they will discuss the pros and cons of different medications as well as the possible side effects. We will work with you to tailor a treatment plan that is right for you. It is important that you feel thoroughly educated, have enough time to think about your options and feel that you and your doctor are working as collaborators.