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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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How Common Is GAD?

About 4 million adult Americans suffer from GAD during the course of a year. It most often begins in childhood or adolescence, but can begin in adulthood. It is more common in women than in men.

How Is GAD Diagnosed?

If symptoms of GAD are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by asking questions about your medical and psychiatric history and perform a physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose anxiety disorders, the doctor may use various tests to look for physical illness as the cause of symptoms.

The doctor bases his or her diagnosis of GAD on reports of the intensity and duration of symptoms -- including any problems with functioning caused by the symptoms. The doctor then determines if the symptoms and degree of dysfunction indicate a specific anxiety disorder. GAD is diagnosed if symptoms are present for more days than not during a period of at least six months. The symptoms also must interfere with daily living, such as causing you to miss work or school.

How Is GAD Treated?

If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses like GAD. Treatment for GAD most often includes a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

  • Medication: Drugs are available to treat GAD and may be especially helpful for people whose anxiety is interfering with daily functioning. The drugs most often used to treat GAD in the short-term (since they can be addictive, are sedating, and can interfere with memory and attention) are from a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. These medications are sometimes also referred to as sedative-hypnotics or "minor tranquilizers" because they can remove intense feelings of acute anxiety. They work by decreasing the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension and restlessness. Common benzodiazepines include Xanax, Librium, Valium, and Ativan. These drugs can cause added sedation effects when combined with many other medicines, and they are also dangerous if mixed with alcohol. Certain antidepressants, such as Paxil, Effexor, Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft, and Cymbalta are also used to treat GAD for longer periods of time. These antidepressants may take a few weeks to start working but they're safer and more appropriate for long-term treatment of GAD.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: People suffering from anxiety disorders often participate in this type of therapy, in which you learn to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to anxious feelings. This type of therapy helps limit distorted thinking by looking at worries more realistically.

In addition, relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and biofeedback, may help control the muscle tension that often accompanies GAD.

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