Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a severe mental health condition that can affect both our mental and physical well-being. Understanding generalized anxiety disorder symptoms can help us identify triggers, seek help and overcome the condition.
Impact Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
According to Mind Journal, “Generalized anxiety disorder typically involves intense and repeated worry that impairs the ability of the patient to function normally in daily life.” Suffering from GAD can not only lead to uncontrollable worrying and irrational behavior, it can also seriously affect our daily functioning. People with this condition tend to worry excessively and persistently about almost everything and often unnecessarily. As they are unable to control their worry cycle, it leads to high levels of anxiety. Most sufferers tend to avoid triggers or situations that can lead to worry or increase their anxiety. As a result they face a lot of challenges in conducting simple daily activities and living healthy, meaningful lives. However, one 2001 study 1 found that the “cardinal symptoms of GAD commonly overlap with those of social phobia, particularly if the social phobia is more general and not focused on a phobic situation.”
According to a recent 2020 study 2 , “excessive worry” is the most important feature of GAD and the anxiety disorder “produces fear, worry, and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed.” GAD is typically related to intense feelings of unease and dread as the person is constantly in a state of worry over everyday things. However, unlike most people, individuals experiencing generalized anxiety disorder symptoms are unable to rationalize their worries and fears. Due to the uncontrollable nature of the experience, the sufferer is unable to resolve it by themselves and may require professional help.
Understanding GAD Symptoms
According to a recent research paper 3 , excessive worry is one of the most prominent generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. But it can also be “accompanied by many non-specific psychological and physical symptoms.” Anxiety and fear are the most common emotional symptoms of GAD, while insomnia, rapid breathing and muscle tension are common physical symptoms. As sufferers often feel fear, worry and anxiety about anything and as these emotions are not tied to any specific situations, it is known as “generalized” anxiety. It should be noted that if you feel anxious only in specific situations, then it may not be GAD. Contrary to popular belief, panic attacks and sudden fear are not signs of GAD, although a sufferer may experience such symptoms. According to a scientific analysis 4 , “Generalized anxiety disorder can have both emotional and physical effects.” Emotional symptoms of GAD mostly include exaggerated and unrealistic worries and fears which affect different aspects of the sufferers life. Their reaction is not necessarily a reaction to a threat or a real situation or thing. “They worry about almost everything – including both big and small problems, and even extremely trivial things. Many are also afraid of being afraid, or worried about constantly worrying,” explain the researchers.
The scientific analysis revealed that the hormone adrenaline (epinephrine) is released by the adrenal glands when someone is feeling afraid. This can fasten certain bodily functions temporarily which enables us to be more alert and respond faster to threats. It can increase our heart rate and make breathing rapid and shallow. People with generalized anxiety disorder symptoms can experience this heightened state of physical alertness for a long time. Apart from these, there are some other possible GAD symptoms such as muscle tension, stomach problems, sweating, trembling, drowsiness, dizziness and nervousness.
Struggling with generalized anxiety disorder also makes people feel exhausted, leads to sleeping problems and impairs concentration. In severe cases, it can cause depression and suicidal thoughts as well. One 2016 study 5 found that generalized anxiety disorder symptoms at age 15 years can increase the likelihood of experiencing depression at age 18 years. Research 6 also shows that more than 70% of individuals, with a lifetime history of suicide attempt, suffered from an anxiety disorder. According to a 2015 meta-analysis 7 , anxiety disorders are statistically important “risk factors for future suicide ideation and attempts but not deaths.”
Common Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of GAD that you need to look out for:
1. Worrying constantly
Sufferers feel like they are stuck in a perpetual loop of worrying about all the things that can go wrong. They uncontrollably think about all the potential problems that may arise in any situation.
2. Incessantly alert
As their anxiety makes them highly alert, vigilant and guarded all the time, they tend to feel physically tense most of the time. Having stiff shoulders is one of the most widely observed generalized anxiety disorder symptoms.
3. Trouble concentrating
Constantly worrying, being tensed and experiencing high levels of anxiety can adversely affect our ability to focus on one task. Anxiety can affect our breathing patterns 8 , which affects the flow of oxygen to the brain. This impairs our ability to concentrate and our capacity to perform something.
4. Unable to relax
Sufferers typically lack the ability to relax or enjoy some downtime. Enjoying by themselves can be a serious challenge for people with GAD.
5. Avoiding stressful situations
As anxiety can impair their daily functioning and severely affect their mental and emotional health, sufferers often tend to take great measures to avoid situations that may trigger their anxiety disorder. This can often lead to strained relationships and lost opportunities.
6. Body aches
Due to high degrees of alertness and tension, sufferers can experience body aches and muscle tightness. Grinding their teeth and tightening their jaws are highly common among people with GAD.
7. Intrusive thoughts
Having intrusive thoughts about a wide range of topics is perhaps one of the most common generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. Even when the sufferer is aware of their irrational thought patterns, they are unable to control or stop it.
8. Shaking or trembling
As anxiety leads to high alertness and preparedness to respond to threats, it makes the muscles ready to react to any danger and take necessary action. As a result, the sufferer may experience shaking or trembling to varying degrees.
9. Hot flashes & cold chills
GAD can often manifest through tingling sensations or numbness accompanied with cold chills or hot flashes. As being in a high alert mode makes the sufferer ready for a fight or flight response 9 , they can experience a range of sensations, such as tingling, cold or hot, as blood rushes through their body.
Physical & Emotional Symptoms Of GAD
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms can seriously affect the sufferer’s physical and emotional health. Here are some of the most prominent physical and emotional symptoms of this mental health condition:
1. Physical symptoms
- Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
- Exhaustion, tiredness & fatigue
- Shaking & trembling
- Muscle tension
- Frequent stomach aches or unexplained pains
- Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat
- Excessive sweating or sweaty palms
- Hot flashes
- Nausea, dizziness, vomiting & diarrhea
- Difficulty swallowing
- Shallow or shortness of breath
- Going to the bathroom repeatedly
- Changes in appetite
- Dry mouth or having a lump in the throat
- Feeling sick
- Neurological symptoms like tingling or numbness in the body
2. Emotional symptoms
- Derealisation & depersonalisation
- Excessive, constant worry & tension about everyday things
- Overthinking about all possible worst-case scenarios
- Unnecessarily perceiving events & situations as threatening
- Feelings of nervousness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Unrealistic perspective on issues
- Being startled easily
- Feelings of dread & doom
- Trouble controlling emotions
- Difficulty relaxing
- Constantly feeling on edge
- Inability to let go of thoughts or worries
- Trouble managing uncertainty
The intensity of the symptoms tend to vary to some extent depending on the individual, circumstances, past experiences and other comorbid conditions. Moreover, symptoms can become better or worse at certain times. It can get severe when the person is experiencing chronic stress, such as a relationship conflict, family issues, financial problems, work pressures, examinations or a physical illness.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms In Children
Children and teens suffering from GAD tend to worry excessively about normal daily situations, just like adults, such as –
- Family problems or safety of parents
- Social relationships & interactions
- Household responsibilities & chores
- Academic or sports performance
- Punctuality or being late
- Natural disasters like storms, earthquakes or other catastrophic events
Children or teenagers may experience the following generalized anxiety disorder symptoms:
- Feeling highly anxious to fit in with their social groups
- Lacking confidence
- Being a perfectionist or doing a task repeatedly until it’s perfect
- Seeking approval and validation constantly
- Avoiding social situations, like going to school
- Investing a lot of time and effort in completing homework
- Requiring constant reassurance about skills & performance
- Experiencing physical health issues, like frequent stomach aches
Consult A Doctor
Although feeling anxious at times may be normal for most of us, when you are experiencing chronic anxiety, it is best to see a doctor. Seeking professional help can be especially important if you are experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts along with some or most of these generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. Getting diagnosed can help you seek medical treatment under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional and overcome this debilitating condition to live a healthier, happier life.
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- Munir S, Takov V. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. 2020 Nov 19. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–. PMID: 28722900.
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- Davies, S. J., Pearson, R. M., Stapinski, L., Bould, H., Christmas, D. M., Button, K. S., Skapinakis, P., Lewis, G., & Evans, J. (2015). Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder but not panic disorder at age 15 years increase the risk of depression at 18 years in the Avon longitudinal study of parents and children (ALSPAC) cohort study. Psychological Medicine, 46(1), 73-85. https://doi.org/10.1017/s003329171500149x
- Nepon, J., Belik, S. L., Bolton, J., & Sareen, J. (2010). The relationship between anxiety disorders and suicide attempts: findings from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Depression and anxiety, 27(9), 791–798. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20674
- Bentley, K. H., Franklin, J. C., Ribeiro, J. D., Kleiman, E. M., Fox, K. R., & Nock, M. K. (2016). Anxiety and its disorders as risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 43, 30–46. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2015.11.008
- Leander M, Lampa E, Rask-Andersen A, Franklin K, Gislason T, Oudin A, Svanes C, Torén K, Janson C. Impact of anxiety and depression on respiratory symptoms. Respir Med. 2014 Nov;108(11):1594-600. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2014.09.007. Epub 2014 Sep 16. PMID: 25282543.
- Goldstein D. S. (2010). Adrenal responses to stress. Cellular and molecular neurobiology, 30(8), 1433–1440. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10571-010-9606-9