We all feel anxious sometimes. Usually, it’s obvious what’s causing the anxiety. Knowing the cause is important so we can work to decrease feelings of nervousness. Sometimes we may be able to direct our efforts to the actual problem, while at times we can deal with our emotions by redirecting the emotions into some positive behavior.
For some people, however, it is difficult or impossible to identify a specific cause for their anxiety. They experience omnipresent anxiety, or “free floating anxiety.” If anxiety becomes so continuous you feel you can never relax or these feelings hamper the ability to carry out day-to-day activities, you may have a condition called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
This unremitting anxiety results in the body remaining in a state of fight-or-flight which is a response to danger signals. However, when the body maintains this state for long time periods, you feel mentally and physically exhausted. Anxiety depletes your energy, interrupts your sleep, and can lead to physical illness.
In the U.S., the 12 month prevalence rate for GAD is estimated at 3.1% in adults. Of these cases 32.3% (1% of the U.S. population) are considered severe, meaning their lives are significantly impacted by GAD. The lifetime prevalence rate for adults is estimated at 5.7% with an average age of onset of 31 years old.
Women are twice as likely to experience GAD as men. However, it’s been suggested this estimate may not be entirely accurate since men are less likely to report anxiety symptoms. The younger the individual develops the disorder, the greater the likelihood there will be co-occurring disorders and a greater degree of impairment.
The most common disorders to co-occur with GAD:
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Social phobia
- Major depressive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Genetic: Those who have a family history of anxiety disorders have a greater likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder than those with no such family history compared to those without such a family history.
Brain Chemistry: Certain chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, are responsible for communication between neurons. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine play a role in interpreting physiological arousal and danger cues. When these chemicals exist at improper levels, they may communicate false messages that danger is near when it’s not.
Brain Structure: Research has shown there are certain parts of the brain that regulate fear, memory and emotion and coordinate these with physical reactions to stress. Studies indicate that in individuals with GAD, these areas are overly-sensitive to novelty, unpredictability and the inability to control the world around them. Since we can never fully predict or control everything in our lives, when people prone to developing GAD come into contact with something new, unpredictable or out of their control they become overly anxious. Additionally, the brain may interpret physiological fear reactions such as sweating palms, increased heart rate and feeling faint as indicators that anxiety is present and produce it in response to the symptoms.
Environmental: Individuals who have experienced numerous severe stressors including traumatic events, deaths of loved ones, precarious situations, divorce, sudden illness, moves, job loss and other negative situations come to view the world as hostile and dangerous.
Signs and Symptoms
While the symptoms of GAD may decrease, this disorder rarely goes away without treatment. However, there are effective therapeutic options available to help those suffering from this disorder.
There are a number of signs and symptoms which are hallmarks of GAD. These include:
- Extreme and unreasonable worries
- The worry is associated with almost everything in the person’s life
- The anxiety may seem as if it has come out of nowhere
- The anxiety may seem like it is impossible to control
- Awareness that worrying is out of control
- Feeling helplessness or hopelessness about the future
- Being unrealistic about problems
- Trouble with attentiveness, focus and memory
- Trouble with decision making
- Mind going blank
- Muscle strain
- Pains in different areas of the body
- Elevated and hearth rate
- Sleep difficulties
- Trouble swallowing
Effects of GAD
- Difficulty maintaining productivity at school and work
- Sleep problems – waking frequently during the night
- Social difficulties, relationship problems
- Family and marital discord
- Trouble with daily activities
- Increasing depression due to hopelessness/helplessness
- Being unable to do thing rapidly or correctly
- Use of alcohol of drugs to self-medicate away the anxiety
- Social anxiety
- Feeling as if it’s impossible to make things better
- Decreased self-confidence
- GI problems
- Loss of motivation