Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder -- the Basics

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on September 29, 2020

What Is Anxiety?

Normal life includes some anxiety and fear. In a stressful situation, your brain triggers a flood of chemicals into the bloodstream. Your heart beats faster; your breath becomes shallow and rapid; muscles tense; your mind goes on full alert. It's all part of the human's innate reaction to a threat: You're ready to flee or fight.

Sometimes anxiety and fear linger on and on. The feelings can be overwhelming. When they interfere with normal activities, there's a problem. Doctors call this kind of problem a disorder. Millions of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. There are several different kinds.

This article deals with generalized anxiety disorder (or GAD). Other articles will deal with other forms of anxiety disorder: panic disorder, social phobia, and simple phobias.

A person who worries excessively and unrealistically about most things for six months or more may have GAD. It's not the worries themselves that are unrealistic, but the extent of the worrying. For example, it may not be unrealistic to worry that if your spouse is a few minutes late getting home, there may have been an accident. But it's a problem if this causes a rising sense of terror and an inability to stop fretting and thinking about awful possibilities.

Life is stressful. It's a good idea for everyone to learn some relaxation techniques. Different things work for different people. What doesn't work is using alcohol or drugs to dull the anxiety symptoms. In the not-too-long run, substance abuse will actually worsen anxiety and may lead to depression.

What Causes Anxiety?

Everyday anxiety can be triggered by a recognizable stress -- such as an accident, a death in the family, or the loss of a job. In time, people usually adjust to these stressful events. People with GAD may find that their symptoms get worse during stressful events.

Generalized anxiety disorder may run in families. It usually begins at an earlier age and symptoms may manifest themselves more slowly than in most other anxiety disorders.

Some theorists believe that certain kinds of anxiety may stem from unresolved past traumas or frightening experiences or insecurities about relationships from early life. Anxiety may result when people have trouble integrating such past experiences in the present day. Others say that anxieties arise when a situation stimulates feelings that a person believes to be unacceptable. Anxiety then steps in. It overrides feelings that the person fears or doesn't know how to handle.

WebMD Medical Reference



Starcevic, V. Anxiety Disorders in Adults: A Clinical Guide, Edition 1, Oxford University Press, 2005. 

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders4th Edition, 2000. 

Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, New Perspectives for Treating GAD, 2004.

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