"I always thought I was just a worrier. I'd feel keyed up and unable to relax. At times it would come and go, and at times it would be constant. It could go on for days. I'd worry about what I was going to fix for a dinner party, or what would be a great present for somebody. I just couldn't let something go.

"I'd have terrible sleeping problems. There were times I'd wake up wired in the middle of the night. I had trouble concentrating, even reading the newspaper or a novel. Sometimes I'd feel a little lightheaded. My heart would race or pound. And that would make me worry more. I was always imagining things were worse than they really were: when I got a stomachache, I'd think it was an ulcer.

"When my problems were at their worst, I'd miss work and feel just terrible about it. Then I worried that I'd lose my job. My life was miserable until I got treatment."

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is much more than the normal anxiety people experience day to day. It's chronic and fills one's day with exaggerated worry and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it. Having this disorder means always anticipating disaster, often worrying excessively about health, money, family, or work. Sometimes, though, the source of the worry is hard to pinpoint. Simply the thought of getting through the day provokes anxiety.

People with GAD can't seem to shake their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. Their worries are accompanied by physical symptoms, especially fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, and hot flashes. People with GAD may feel lightheaded or out of breath. They also may feel nauseated or have to go to the bathroom frequently.

Individuals with GAD seem unable to relax, and they may startle more easily than other people. They tend to have difficulty concentrating, too. Often, they have trouble falling or staying asleep.

Unlike people with several other anxiety disorders, people with GAD don't characteristically avoid certain situations as a result of their disorder. When impairment associated with GAD is mild, people with the disorder may be able to function in social settings or on the job. If severe, however, GAD can be very debilitating, making it difficult to carry out even the most ordinary daily activities.

GAD affects about 4 million adult Americans1 and about twice as many women as men.2 The disorder comes on gradually and can begin across the life cycle, though the risk is highest between childhood and middle age.2 It is diagnosed when someone spends at least 6 months worrying excessively about a number of everyday problems. There is evidence that genes play a modest role in GAD.13

GAD is commonly treated with medications. GAD rarely occurs alone, however; it is usually accompanied by another anxiety disorder, depression, or substance abuse.2,4 These other conditions must be treated along with GAD.

Depression

Depression often accompanies anxiety disorders4 and, when it does, it needs to be treated as well. Symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, changes in appetite or sleep, low energy, and difficulty concentrating. Most people with depression can be effectively treated with antidepressant medications, certain types of psychotherapy, or a combination of both.

Treatment

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References

1Narrow WE, Rae DS, Regier DA. NIMH epidemiology note: prevalence of anxiety disorders. One-year prevalence best estimates calculated from ECA and NCS data. Population estimates based on U.S. Census estimated residential population age 18 to 54 on July 1, 1998. Unpublished.

2Robins LN, Regier DA, eds. Psychiatric disorders in America: the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

3The NIMH Genetics Workgroup. Genetics and mental disorders. NIH Publication No. 98-4268. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 1998.

4Regier DA, Rae DS, Narrow WE, et al. Prevalence of anxiety disorders and their comorbidity with mood and addictive disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry Supplement, 1998; (34): 24-8.

5Kushner MG, Sher KJ, Beitman BD. The relation between alcohol problems and the anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1990; 147(6): 685-95.

6Wonderlich SA, Mitchell JE. Eating disorders and comorbidity: empirical, conceptual, and clinical implications. Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 1997; 33(3): 381-90.

7Davidson JR. Trauma: the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2000; 14(2 Suppl 1): S5-S12.

8Margolin G, Gordis EB. The effects of family and community violence on children. Annual Review of Psychology, 2000; 51: 445-79.

9Yehuda R. Biological factors associated with susceptibility to posttraumatic stress disorder. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 1999; 44(1): 34-9.

10Bourdon KH, Boyd JH, Rae DS, et al. Gender differences in phobias: results of the ECA community survey. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 1988; 2: 227-41.

11Kendler KS, Walters EE, Truett KR, et al. A twin-family study of self-report symptoms of panic-phobia and somatization. Behavior Genetics, 1995; 25(6): 499-515.

12Boyd JH, Rae DS, Thompson JW, et al. Phobia: prevalence and risk factors. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 1990; 25(6): 314-23.

13Kendler KS, Neale MC, Kessler RC, et al. Generalized anxiety disorder in women. A population-based twin study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1992; 49(4): 267-72.

14LeDoux J. Fear and the brain: where have we been, and where are we going? Biological Psychiatry, 1998; 44(12): 1229-38.

15Bremner JD, Randall P, Scott TM, et al. MRI-based measurement of hippocampal volume in combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1995; 152: 973-81.

16Stein MB, Hanna C, Koverola C, et al. Structural brain changes in PTSD: does trauma alter neuroanatomy? In: Yehuda R, McFarlane AC, eds. Psychobiology of posttraumatic stress disorder. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 821. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1997.

17Rauch SL, Savage CR. Neuroimaging and neuropsychology of the striatum. Bridging basic science and clinical practice. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 1997; 20(4): 741-68.

18Gould E, Reeves AJ, Fallah M, et al. Hippocampal neurogenesis in adult Old World primates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 1999, 96(9): 5263-7.

19Hyman SE, Rudorfer MV. Anxiety disorders. In: Dale DC, Federman DD, eds. Scientific American® Medicine. Volume 3. New York: Healtheon/WebMD Corp., 2000, Sect. 13, Subsect. VIII.

NASET wishes to thank the National Institute of Mental Health for the information in this article.

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