What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

A Guide to the Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment for GAD

Woman looking depressed
Getty Images/Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy

We all worry—about health, family, money, work. But if you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), you worry all the time, even when nothing is wrong. A person with GAD always expects the worst will happen, can't relax, and feels tense most of the time.

About 6.8 million adults in the U.S. have GAD, including twice as many women as men. The disorder develops gradually and can begin at any age, although the years of highest risk are between childhood and middle age.

Wondering if you might have GAD? Keep reading for answers to your questions.

Common Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The biggest symptom of GAD is constant worry, but other symptoms - including physical symptoms - can also be a part of the experience. Research suggests that GAD symptoms can become worse when a person is under stress. Common symptoms include:

  • Constant worrying about anything and everything
  • Aches and pains, including headaches, for no reason
  • Trembling and muscle tension
  • Feeling tense and unable to relax
  • Feeling tired all the time.
  • Having trouble staying focused or not being able to keep your mind on one thing
  • Feeling irritable or grouchy
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Sweating or hot flashes
  • Having a lump in the throat or feeling like you need to throw up when you're worried

How GAD Is Treated

Anxiety disorders are among the most common of all mental disorders. Many people think you should be able to overcome the symptoms by simply snapping out of it.

If only it were that easy! 

Anxiety disorders are usually treated with medication and/or psychotherapy. What's known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are often used, along with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other medicines include anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines and beta-blockers.

Discuss the options with your doctor. New drugs are being tested in clinical trials. For information, go to the NIMH web site and the National Library of Medicine's clinical trials database.

Treatment with psychotherapy includes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and behavioral therapy. In CBT, the goal is to change how a person thinks about a situation that makes them anxious or fearful. In behavioral therapy, the focus is on changing how a person reacts to a situation.

Your doctor and therapist should work together to help you find the best approach. New treatments are being developed through ongoing research.

If You Think You Have GAD

If you've spent at least six months in a chronic state of worry, see your doctor. He'll examine you to see if your symptoms are GAD-related or if they're a sign of something else.

If he suspects GAD, he may suggest a visit with a mental health professional. Look for one who has special training in cognitive-behavioral and/or behavioral therapy. Try to find someone who is open to the use of medications, should they be needed. And if they are not a medical doctor, be sure they work with one so medication can be prescribed. Keep in mind that when you start taking anti-anxiety medicine, it may not start working right away.

Give your body a few weeks to get used to it. Then, you and your doctor can decide if it's working.

What Can I Do to Help Myself If I Have GAD?

Consider joining a support group or simply talking with a friend or family member you can trust. Learning how to manage stress will help you to stay calm and focused. Research suggests that aerobic exercise like jogging, bicycling and swimming are all good de-stressers. Other studies show that caffeine, illegal drugs, and some over-the-counter cold medicines can worsen the symptoms of GAD. 

This FAQ was adapted from anxiety disorder fact sheets of the National Institute of Mental Health.