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Generalized anxiety disorder: Symptoms and effective treatment options

Generalized anxiety disorder: Symptoms and effective treatment options

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) will affect nearly seven million adults in the U.S. each year. Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder often have difficulties controlling even the most mundane of daily worries. They may worry more than is realistically necessary about actual events or expect the worst outcome when there seems to be no reason for their concern.

But of the seven million Americans affected by this condition, only 43% are receiving treatment for their symptoms—meaning they suffer without a solution. With this in mind, understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options surrounding generalized anxiety disorder empowers these individuals to better manage their anxiety and find long-term, lasting relief.

What Are the Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

There are many potential symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder; however, there are five DSM-5-based criteria that must be met in order for someone to have generalized anxiety disorder:

  1. Excessive worry and apprehension for at least 6 months 
  2. Difficulty effectively regulating and controlling said worry
  3. The anxiety and worry symptoms above are accompanied by the following physical symptoms
    1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
    2. Being easily fatigued
    3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
    4. Irritability
    5. Muscle tension
    6. Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)


4. The symptoms above are not due to what is considered an Axis I disorder

5. The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. This also has a modifier of not being caused by a substance.

Generalized anxiety disorder presents itself as a persistent, distracting, and disorienting uneasiness that follows the sufferer throughout their daily life. As opposed to other forms of anxiety that are often attributed to specific triggers or linked factors, generalized anxiety disorder symptoms are often recognized due to their impact on a client’s daily life. 

What Are the 3 Physical Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

There are actually 6 different physical symptoms, not three, that can be present when a clinician is examining someone for generalized anxiety disorder. In order to be diagnosed, the individual must meet criteria/have at least 3 of the following symptoms:

  • Restlessness (feeling keyed up, or on edge)
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)

Some of the most common physical symptoms include restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances (insomnia).

Is GAD Considered a Serious Mental Illness?

Generalized anxiety disorder, like many other conditions, can vary on a spectrum—meaning that for one person, it may be a serious condition, and for someone else, it’s only a mild impairment.

Nonetheless, generalized anxiety disorder can in some instances, cause serious impairment and significant disruption in daily life despite the severity. Anxiety is highly normalized in western society, which is great for awareness and acceptance of this condition. However, when constant anxiety is viewed as “normal”, it can very easily become a significant disruption over time.

What Is an Example of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Some examples of the issues that people with generalized anxiety disorder might experience include:

  • Catastrophizing thought patterns (e.g., worrying that your mom has died when she hasn’t called you in 6 hours)
  • Overthinking (e.g., “I forgot my sister’s boyfriend’s name, he will probably never like me and I probably made him feel offended”)
  • Chronic jaw pain and TMJ (Temporomandibular joint dysfunction) due to unconscious jaw clenching when stressed
  • Engaging in overplanning behaviors that are not appropriate for the situation (e.g., going to an amusement park and planning out every 10 minutes of your time spent there)
  • Rigid and inflexible thought patterns (e.g., “I feel stupid, so I must be stupid. I have a feeling something bad might go wrong, this means it’s guaranteed to go wrong”)

People with GAD often are unable to rest because of their persistent worrying, which can affect their performance on the job and at school, and cause difficulties in relationships. Sometimes even everyday tasks can become arduous to accomplish. 

Females are more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder, at twice the rate of men. In addition, generalized anxiety disorder is more common in individuals who are between 45 and 50 years old, but one’s susceptibility decreases after the age of 60.

How Does Generalized Anxiety Feel?

Generalized anxiety disorder often feels paralyzing, with thoughts that immobilize the individual, blocking them from the behaviors or actions that might alleviate their anxiety. They are usually able to engage in their daily activities and appear “fine” on the surface, however their brain might be moving a mile-a-minute. 

Some individuals experience fatigue due to the constant, rapid churning of distressing thoughts and worries that occur within their brain. For most with generalized anxiety disorder, this “chatter” is constant in their brain every waking second of their day. 

People with generalized anxiety often have to take more time to be prepared and are less likely to be spontaneous; they have a high fear of the unknown or unplanned events.

Do I Have GAD, or Do I Just Worry?

If you focus too intently on unrealistic or hypothetical situations or everyday stress is severe, you might have generalized anxiety disorder. That said, you can’t diagnose yourself: Only a licensed professional can do that. Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider or a mental health professional to talk about your symptoms. It’s a task that only a licensed mental health professional can successfully perform.

In the meantime, consider: Who hasn’t ever been stressed out about money, their health, or their career path? These are common stressors for all of us, and people with generalized anxiety disorder worry about these things as well—but much more deeply. Everyday stressors can transform from molehills to mountains. But sufferers of generalized anxiety disorder also grapple with “what-ifs,” and these imaginary scenarios can become a huge distraction. 

Suggestions for Dealing with Anxiety

If you are worrying about something that might happen in the future, step back and try to think about the current moment. Keep your attention on the present instead of concentrating on the “what ifs” and all the worries that plague you.

When you are in the midst of suffering from generalized anxiety disorder symptoms, your brain may be coming up with all types of things that are not likely to happen. For instance, if you are about to give a presentation at a meeting, you may have thoughts that you won’t be able to do it or that everyone will laugh at you. Ask yourself: 

  • Is the situation you are worried about likely to happen? 
  • What is the worst thing that can happen? 
  • If the worst thing that can happen actually does occur, how will you be able to prepare for it?

Do what you need to do to take your mind off of your anxiety, such as cleaning, meeting friends, and shopping for groceries. Ask yourself what you would do if you were not feeling anxious at that moment. Take the first step to taking care of the “to do” list, and get some of the items done. Studies have shown that staying productive and accomplishing tasks can help the brain to alleviate stress by rewarding us.

What Are Some Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment Options?

People with generalized anxiety disorder can find successful treatment with therapy, medicine, or both. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help the individual learn other avenues of thought. They can also learn how to respond to different settings that cause them to worry. An individual with generalized anxiety disorder symptoms may find that a support group for anxiety is helpful, too. They may find they are able to relate to others in the group who experience the same type of worrying behavior and share ways to cope.

If you are getting treatment for generalized anxiety disorder symptoms and want to ensure that you are managing your worries and anxieties the best you can, try deep-breathing. Deep breathing is used to lessen anxiety. Inhale and count slowly, then hold your breath for a few seconds, and exhale for several seconds. 

Repeat the deep breathing exercise until you feel some of the stress dissipating. Envision that you are at a favorite vacation spot, a serene park, or in the garden. You can picture waves in the ocean, the wind blowing through the leaves of trees, or different flowers blooming.

The amount of stress and worry that generalized anxiety disorder stirs up can feel crippling. But with a provider’s care, including the coping strategies and management techniques they can introduce, generalized anxiety disorder can be managed. And you can get back to living a better life.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 3 sources
  • Update history
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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC
Laura Harris, LCMHCLicensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
See Laura's availability

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Jason CrosbyMental Health Writer

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Arnold, E, ( June,2022). Anxiety DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria and Treatment Overview. Psycom Pro. Retrieved May , 2023
  • Andrew Westbrook, Todd S. Braver (February 2016). Dopamine does double duty in motivating cognitive effort. PubMed Central. Retrieved May, 2023 from

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Original published: Jul 6, 2017

    Author: VT

  • Updated on May 22nd, 2023

    Authors: Jason Crosby & Alexandra Cromer, LPC

    Reviewer: Laura Harris, LCMHC

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team. Added 5 additional sections and included refreshed clinical sources.


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