Anxiety can often times be hidden in plain sight, making it difficult to identify. Understanding and recognizing the signs, symptoms, risks and more is the first step in the recovery journey.
Learn about anxiety
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by excessive anxiety and fear over everyday events and activities. While some amount of anxiety can be helpful, allowing a person to meet deadlines or cram for an exam, a person who has an anxiety disorder experiences anxiety that is much more excessive and far less helpful. Symptoms of anxiety disorders are pronounced, distressing, and pervasive; people with GAD worry even when there is little to no reason to worry. Also referred to as “free-floating anxiety,” people with GAD report that anxiety often comes out of nowhere without any precipitating event. They have a difficult time controlling their anxiety and worry; attempts to do so often make the problem worse. They often develop a sense of helplessness since it seems like nothing they do can decrease their worries, leading to the development of other psychosocial problems. Fortunately, with the help of certain types of medication and ongoing therapies, people who have anxiety disorders are able to reclaim their lives.
In the United States, it is estimated that 0.9% of adolescents and 2.9% of adults suffer from GAD in a given year. The lifetime risk for developing anxiety disorders is 9% with the average age of onset at age 30. Females are twice as likely to experience this disorder, however this may be the result of women being more apt to report their symptoms than men. The younger the person is when the disorder develops, the more likely there will be co-occurring disorders and the greater the impairment.
Causes and risk factors for anxiety
It’s unlikely that a person will develop an anxiety disorder for a single reason. It’s widely accepted that most people develop anxiety disorders as a result of the complex interplay of a variety of causes and risks factors. Some of the causes for anxiety disorders include:
Genetic: People who have first-degree relatives, such as a parent or sibling, with anxiety disorders are at higher risk for developing these disorders themselves. It’s worth noting that while many people have a genetic predisposition to the disorder, a number of people who develop anxiety disorders do not have a family history.
Brain Chemistry: Abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain, are thought to play a role in the developmental of anxiety disorders. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine play a role in anxiety control and low levels of these neurotransmitters may incorrectly signal that danger is near. Additionally, parts of the brain that regulate fear, memory and emotion are highly sensitive to unfamiliar or unpredictable situation, which can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder.
Environmental: Individuals who have experienced numerous and severe stressors including traumatic events, multiple deaths of loved ones, being placed in dangerous situations, divorce, sudden illness, moves, job loss etc., are more likely to develop generalized anxiety.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety
Signs and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder will vary based upon individual genetic makeup, severity of symptoms, and presence of co-occurring disorders. Symptoms and signs of generalized anxiety disorder include:
- Excessive and unrealistic worry occurring almost all day on more days than not
- Worry is connected to many things in the person’s life
- The worry may be experienced as not connected to anything but as having appeared out of nowhere
- The worry is excessive or unwarranted given the circumstances
- The worry is experienced as extremely and sometimes impossible to control
- Awareness that the worrying is excessive
- Feeling light-headed
- Body aches and pains
- Rapid pulse, elevated hearth rate, difficulty breathing at times
- The need to go to the bathroom frequently
- Exaggerated startle response
- Sleep problems
- Having difficulty swallowing
- Trouble with concentration, attention and memory
- Difficulty making decisions
- Mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Feeling helpless or hopeless that things will improve
- Unrealistic view of problems
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Mood swings
- Obsession about small or large problems
Effects of anxiety
People living with untreated and unmanaged generalized anxiety disorder may face a multitude of consequences and effects as this disorder can affect every aspect of daily living. Common effects of living with untreated anxiety disorders include:
- Inability to fulfill responsibilities at home, work, or school
- Sleep disturbances
- Family and marital problems
- Difficulty carrying out daily activities
- Inability to do things quickly or accurately
- Inability to interact normally with others
- Feeling unable to do anything to make things better
- Loss of self-esteem due to feelings of helplessness/hopelessness
- Loss of motivation
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
While the symptoms of GAD may wax and wane over your life span, anxiety rarely remits without treatment and can negatively impact all areas of life. Therefore, it is important to receive help if believe you or someone you love is suffering from this problem.
Anxiety and co-occurring disorders
Generalized anxiety disorder rarely occurs in the absence of other anxiety disorder. People who have one anxiety disorder are often diagnosed with another. The most common co-occurring disorders include:
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder/social phobia
- Separation anxiety (in children)
- Major depressive disorder
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)