It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time, especially if your life is stressful. However, if you have ongoing anxiety that interferes with day-to-day activities and relationships and makes it hard to enjoy life, you may have generalized anxiety disorder.
It’s possible to develop generalized anxiety disorder as a child or as an adult. Generalized anxiety disorder has similar symptoms as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other types of anxiety, but they’re all different conditions.
Living with generalized anxiety disorder can be a long-term challenge. In many cases, it occurs along with other anxiety or mood disorders. In most cases, generalized anxiety disorder improves with medications or psychotherapy. Making lifestyle changes, learning coping skills and using relaxation techniques also can help.
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms can vary in combination and severity. They can include:
- Constant worrying or obsession about small or large concerns
- Restlessness and feeling keyed up or on edge
- Difficulty concentrating or your mind “going blank”
- Muscle tension or muscle aches
- Trembling, feeling twitchy or being easily startled
- Trouble sleeping
- Sweating, nausea or diarrhea
- Shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat
There may be times when your worries don’t completely consume you, but you still feel anxious even when there’s no apparent reason. For example, you may feel intense worry about your safety or that of your loved ones, or you may have a general sense that something bad is about to happen.
Generalized anxiety disorder often begins at an early age, and the signs and symptoms may develop more slowly than in other anxiety disorders. Many people with generalized anxiety disorder can’t recall when they last felt relaxed or at ease.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment. Especially with treatment, you may not feel anxious all of the time. But you’re always susceptible to becoming anxious, especially when life becomes stressful.
Generalized anxiety disorder usually occurs along with other mental health conditions, such as other anxiety disorders, substance abuse problems and mood disorders. It commonly co-occurs with major depression.
Generalized anxiety disorder does more than make you worry. It can also lead to, or worsen, other mental and physical health conditions, including:
- Substance abuse
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Digestive or bowel problems
- Teeth grinding (bruxism)
The following criteria must be met for a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder:
- Excessive anxiety and worry about several events or activities most days of the week, for at least six months
- Difficulty controlling your feelings of worry
- Anxiety or worry that causes you significant distress or interferes with your daily life
- Anxiety that isn’t related to another mental health condition, such as panic attacks, substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- At least three of the following symptoms in adults and one of the following in children: restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, muscle tension or sleep problems
Generalized anxiety disorder often occurs along with other mental health problems, which can make diagnosis and treatment more challenging. Some disorders that commonly occur with generalized anxiety disorder include:
- Panic disorder
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Physical health conditions also can cause anxiety. These include:
- Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
- Heart disease
While most people with generalized anxiety disorder need psychotherapy or medications to get anxiety under control, lifestyle changes also can make a difference. Here are a few things that you can do:
- Get daily exercise. Exercise is a powerful stress reducer, can improve your mood and can keep you healthy. It’s best if you develop a regular routine and work out most days of the week. Start out slow and gradually increase the amount and intensity of exercise.
- Eat a healthy diet. Avoid fatty, sugary and processed foods. Include foods in your diet that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins.
- Avoid alcohol and other sedatives. These can worsen anxiety.
- Use relaxation techniques. Visualization techniques, meditation and yoga are examples of relaxation techniques that can ease anxiety.
- Make sleep a priority. Do what you can to make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. If you aren’t sleeping well, see your doctor.
To cope with generalized anxiety disorder, here are some things you can do:
- Join an anxiety support group. Here, you can find compassion, understanding and shared experiences. You may find support groups in your community, and there are also several available on the Internet.
- Take action. Work with your mental health provider to figure out what’s making you anxious and address it. For example, if finances are your concern, work toward drawing up a budget.
- Let it go. Don’t dwell on past concerns. Change what you can and let the rest take its course.
- Break the cycle. When you feel anxious, take a brisk walk or delve into a hobby to refocus your mind away from your worries.
- Stick to your treatment plan. Take medications as directed. Keep therapy appointments. Consistency can make a big difference, especially when it comes to taking your medication.
- Socialize. Don’t let worries isolate you from loved ones or enjoyable activities. Social interaction and caring relationships can lessen your worries.