Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2009;79(9):online

See related article on generalized anxiety disorder.

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

It is normal to feel nervous and to worry from time to time. But, if your worrying occurs daily, is hard to control, and leads to other symptoms, you may have generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD. Some people may also have headaches, back pain, sweating, nausea, and stomach problems.

What causes it?

Life events such as job uncertainty, money troubles, or a bad marriage may trigger worry and cause you to obsess about these problems. If you think about things the wrong way or focus too much on certain life events, your worrying can get worse. For example, if you have one late car payment, you may start worrying and having extreme thoughts. You might worry that your car will be taken away, which can lead to more bad thoughts, such as, “My home will be next!” Worries about other life troubles and physical problems may follow.

Certain brain chemicals help control how you think. If you don't have enough of these chemicals or if your brain doesn't respond to them the right way, it may lead to too much worry and anxiety.

How is it diagnosed?

Talk with your doctor about your symptoms. He or she will ask you about your anxiety and your general health. Your doctor may also examine you and do some other tests.

To be diagnosed with GAD, you need to have:

  • High levels of anxiety and worrying for at least the past six months

  • Trouble controlling your anxiety

  • Three or more of these symptoms: feeling restless or keyed up; feeling tired; having trouble focusing or feeling like your mind goes blank; feeling irritable; having muscle tension; or having trouble sleeping

How is it treated?

This disorder can be treated with counseling or medicine. Both treatments are helpful. Counseling will teach you how to calm yourself and how to think differently about the events you are worried about. Medicine can correct a chemical imbalance, which will help you to worry less and have fewer physical symptoms.

Using alcohol or other substances, like marijuana, to reduce worrying is not a good idea. These substances may not interact well with medicines your doctor may prescribe.

Where can I get more information?

Your family doctor

Anxiety Disorders Association of America

American Psychiatric Association

American Psychological Association

National Institute of Mental Health

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