Written by: Mayte Parada, PhD
Do you find yourself worrying a lot about everyday tasks? Perhaps you have a constant feeling of apprehension that doesn’t seem to ever go away, no matter what you try? Do you have difficulty remembering the last time you weren’t feeling this way? If so, you may be suffering from generalized anxiety.
What is generalized anxiety?
The disorder known as, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), is characterized by a feeling of overwhelming and excessive worry about everyday events. Typically the anxiety occurs without a specific reason for it.
The worry itself can be about any number of things and the feelings are not caused by medication or other substances. This type of anxiety also tends to occur along with other symptoms like feelings of restlessness, being easily tired out, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and problems sleeping.
Many times, people with generalized anxiety will say they have trouble controlling the feelings of worry in social situations, at work, or other important parts of their life, which makes it really difficult to get through each day. This condition can be debilitating for people and can even impair the way you respond to other people’s emotional experiences without even noticing! (1).
Another important characteristic of generalized anxiety is how intense the anxiety is. Maybe you’ve been anxious about a particular event and you notice your stress response is way out of proportion to what it should be? For example, you might over worry about common, everyday situations like a job responsibility, finances, your own health or the health of your family, your children, or even about other, more minor things, like household chores, being late for appointments, etc.
In anxious children, the worries are more likely to be about how they are doing in school or other activities. These worries can change from one type to another over time.
Who is the most affected by anxiety?
Women tend to report having this kind of excessive anxiety more than men do. About 55%-60% of the people who visit their doctor about their anxiety are women(2). However, men and children will also experience generalized anxiety. People with this disorder will often also suffer from depression or other anxiety issues like panic or intense fears of specific things (phobias), or even problems with alcohol or other substances. People can also experience other conditions that may seem unrelated, like irritable bowel syndrome or frequent headaches.
What is the cause of anxiety?
There are a number of things that can influence whether someone develops generalized anxiety disorder. Currently, we understand that anxiety disorders can run in families, along with other traits like major depression(3). The research available also suggests that environmental factors like childhood trauma, stressful life events, and adverse environments, like one’s family environment or natural disasters, can also lead to developing anxiety disorders (4).
Many people with generalized anxiety will say that they have felt this way most of their lives. However, many people that seek treatment say that the anxiety began in childhood or adolescence. Others will report that it began after age 20 years. Usually, the anxiety is chronic, lasting very long periods of time (months or years). It can, however, fluctuate and will often get worse during times of hightened stress.
How can I help my anxiety?
There are a number of self-help tools available that can help you manage some symptoms of anxiety. Some of these tools include stress-management, problem-solving, and relaxation. Practicing being more aware in the present and during moments of stress can also help. Developing this awareness through mindfulness techniques has been shown to be effective for some people. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes healthy eating, regular sleep, exercise, having fun, and maintaining good social relationships are also very important factors in keeping anxiety low. Substances like alcohol and other recreational drugs may appear to relax you in the moment however, they may actually increase your anxiety over time. Caffeine from drinks and other foods can also increase your level of anxiety. Over-the-counter medications like cough and cold medications contain caffeine and can also contribute to your anxiety.
Should I seek professional help for my anxiety?
Have you have tried unsuccessfully to manage your anxiety symptoms with self-help techniques? Do you feel like your anxiety is becoming debilitating? It is highly recommended that you seek professional help. The disorder can last a very long time if left untreated and can become worse over time, affecting your general ability to get through the day. A medical doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist can make an official diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and then make some recommendations for psychotherapy and or medication.
Individual psychotherapy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder
A psychologist, psychotherapist, and/or clinical counsellor can work with you to learn strategies to better manage the anxiety. Some effective approaches can include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help identify some of the negative thought patterns, which may underlie some of your symptoms. Other clinically effective treatments are mindfulness-based techniques, which help you to stay in the moment and become aware of thoughts and feelings while learning to accept rather than react to them, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which uses elements from both CBT and mindfulness-based approaches.
Other treatment options for Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Individual treatment is not the only option for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Couple and family therapists (CFTs) can work with individuals and their families to help manage anxiety together and to explore family patterns that may be influencing the anxiety. Art and drama therapists use artistic tools and role-playing activities to help people explore their anxiety in ways other than traditional talk-therapies if you are more artistically inclined. Finally, support groups are sometimes helpful for people that would like to discuss what they are experiencing with others like them.
- Arellano, B., Gramszlo, C., Woodruff-Borden, J. (2017). Parental reactions to children’s negative affect: The moderating role of parental GAD. Journal of anxiety disorders, 53, 22-29.
- (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- Gottschalk, M.G., Domschke, C. (2017). Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 19, 159-168.
- Havinga, P.J., Boschloo, L., Bloemen, A.J.P., Nauta, M.H., de Vries, S.O., Penninx, B.W.J.H., Schoevers, R.A., Hartman, C.A. (2017). Doomed for disorder? High incidence of mood and anxiety disorders in offspring of depressed and anxious parents. Journal of clinical psychiatry, 78, e8-e17.