What is a generalized anxiety disorder or GAD?
People with this condition describe generalized anxiety disorder or GAD as a feeling of perpetual worrying about everyday situations and occurrences. Experts often consider GAD a chronic anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects about 6.8 million people in the United States, amounting to approximately 3.1% of the entire US population. Studies found that women are twice as likely to get affected by this disorder than men. GAD comes gradually and can begin anytime in a person’s life. Mostly, it gets triggered by a traumatic event.
Often just the thought of getting through the day results in crippling anxiety. People with generalized anxiety disorder cannot break the worry cycle, and everything feels beyond their control.
When their anxiety levels are low, people with GAD function as usual – they have socially active lives and be gainfully employed. However, with heightened anxiety levels, a person with GAD might avoid various situations because it can trigger their anxiety; they may not take advantage of an opportunity because of worry.
Some people even have difficulty carrying out typical day to day activities when experiencing heightened anxiety levels.
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sweaty palms
- Repeated stomach aches
- Muscle tension
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Numbness or tingling in the body
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
These symptoms start mild, but with anxiety progression, the symptoms also get severe to the point where a person cannot carry out day to day activities.
Difference between GAD and other mental health issues
Anxiety is among the most common symptoms of various mental health disorders, including depression and different phobias. Generalized anxiety disorder is different from other conditions in multiple ways.
People with depression might sometimes feel anxious, and those with a phobia might worry about one specific thing. However, people with generalized anxiety disorder worry about various topics over an extended period (typically six or more months). They might also not be able to identify their worry source.
Causes and risk factors for GAD
Experts haven’t yet pinpointed the exact cause for the development of generalized anxiety disorder. However, there can be many factors that can contribute to the development of this disorder.
Risk factors for GAD might include:
- A family history of any anxiety disorder
- Exposure to a stressful situation, including family illnesses or personal problems
- Excessive caffeine or tobacco use, which might worsen the existing anxiety
- Childhood trauma or abuse
Studies also show that gender also plays a role in developing generalized anxiety disorder – Females are at twice the risk of experiencing GAD than men.
How doctors diagnose GAD?
A doctor typically performs a mental health screening. They ask questions regarding your symptoms and for how long you are experiencing them. Your primary care provider might refer you to a mental health specialist like a psychiatrist or psychologist.
Your doctor may also prescribe some medical tests to determine whether an underlying condition or substance abuse problem is causing these symptoms. There is a strong link between anxiety and the following health issues:
- Heart disease
- Thyroid disorders
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
If your doctor suspects that a medical issue or substance abuse problem is the reason for your anxiety, they may perform additional tests, including:
- Urine test for checking substance abuse
- Blood test for checking hormone levels that may indicate a thyroid disorder
- X-rays and stress tests for checking for heart problems
- Gastric reflux tests, including digestive system’s X-rays or endoscopy procedure to look at esophagus to check for GERD
What are the treatments for GAD?
A doctor can recommend different treatments for generalized anxiety disorder depending on the severity of your symptoms and how long you are experiencing them. The most common treatments are therapy and medications. However, sometimes, mental health experts also suggest some lifestyle changes to manage GAD symptoms.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
This process involves regular visits to a mental health professional and talking with them. CBT aims to change a person’s behavior and thinking. This approach is successful in creating lasting changes in people with anxiety.
Many experts consider CBT to be the first-in-line treatment for anxiety disorders in pregnant people. Mental health experts also note that CBT provides long-term anxiety relief.
Doctors typically create a short-term medication plan and a long-term medication plan for combating anxiety symptoms.
The short-term medicines help manage some of the physical symptoms, including muscle tension and stomach cramping. These anti-anxiety medications include:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
These drugs are not suitable for long-term use, so doctors will prescribe other medications if a person requires long-term treatment.
Doctors often recommend antidepressants for long-term anxiety management. Some common antidepressants include:
- buspirone (Buspar)
- citalopram (Celexa)
- escitalopram (Lexapro)
- fluoxetine (Prozac, Prozac Weekly, Sarafem)
- fluvoxamine (Luvox, Luvox CR)
- paroxetine (Paxil, Paxil CR, Pexeva)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
- venlafaxine (Effexor XR)
- desvenlafaxine (Pristiq)
- duloxetine (Cymbalta)
These medicines typically take a few weeks to start working. Unlike short-term anti-anxiety medications, the risk of developing a mental or physical dependence on these drugs is virtually non-existent.
Doctors typically recommend adopting the following habits:
- regular exercise
- healthy diet
- plenty of sleep
- avoiding stimulants including coffee
- talking with people (friends, family) about worries and fears
- avoiding alcohol
When applied simultaneously, these treatments significantly help manage generalized anxiety symptoms.