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Anxiety is a feeling of unease, like worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is a long-term condition. It causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of issues, rather than 1 specific event.

People with GAD feel anxious most days. They often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed.

As soon as 1 anxious thought is resolved, another may appear about a different issue.

Speak to your GP if anxiety is:

  • affecting your daily life
  • causing you distress

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and your worries, fears and emotions.

Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. For example, you may feel worried and anxious about sitting an exam or having a job interview.

During times like these, feeling anxious can be perfectly normal.

But some people find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and often affect their daily lives.

Anxiety is the main symptom of several conditions, including:

  • panic disorder
  • phobias
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • social anxiety disorder (social phobia)

The information on this page is about a specific condition called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder

GAD can cause a change in your behavior and the way you think and feel about things. It can also cause physical changes. This results in symptoms like:

  • restlessness
  • a sense of dread
  • feeling constantly “on edge”
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • a noticeably strong, fast or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
  • muscle aches and tension
  • trembling or shaking
  • dry mouth
  • excessive sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • stomachache
  • feeling sick
  • headache
  • pins and needles
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia)

Your symptoms may cause you to withdraw from social contact to avoid feelings of worry and dread.

You may also find going to work difficult and stressful and may take time off sick. These actions can make you worry even more about yourself and increase your lack of self-esteem.

Anxiety triggers

If you’re anxious as a result of a specific phobia or because of panic disorder, you’ll usually know what the cause is. For example, if you have claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), you know that being confined in a small space will trigger your anxiety.

However, if you have GAD, it may not always be clear what you’re feeling anxious about. Not knowing what triggers your anxiety can intensify it. You may start to worry that there’ll be no solution.

Causes of generalized anxiety disorder

The exact cause of GAD is not fully understood. It’s likely that a combination of several factors plays a role, like:

  • overactivity in areas of the brain involved in emotions and behavior
  • an imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline, which are involved in the control and regulation of mood
  • the genes you inherit from your parents – you’re estimated to be 5 times more likely to develop GAD if a close relative has it
  • having a history of stressful or traumatic experiences, like domestic violence, child abuse or bullying
  • having a painful long-term health condition, like arthritis
  • having a history of drug or alcohol misuse

However, many people develop GAD for no apparent reason.

Treating generalised anxiety disorder

GAD can have a significant effect on your daily life. There are several different treatments are available that can help. These include:

  • talking therapies – like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • medication – like a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

There are also many things you can do yourself to help reduce your anxiety, like:

  • trying a self-help course
  • exercising regularly
  • stop smoking
  • cutting down on alcohol
  • drinking less caffeine

With treatment, many people are able to control their levels of anxiety. However, some treatments may need to be continued for a long time. There may be periods where your symptoms worsen.

Self help for anxiety

Mental health self-help guides are based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They’ve proven highly successful in helping people with anxiety and other mental health issues.

Contact support groups

Support groups can give you useful advice about how to effectively manage your anxiety. They’re also a good way to meet other people with similar experiences.

Support groups can often arrange face-to-face meetings, where you can talk about your feelings with other people. Many support groups also provide support and guidance over the phone or in writing.

Ask your GP about local support groups for anxiety in your area.

Referral to a specialist

If treatments you’ve tried aren’t helping, you may want to discuss with your GP whether you should be referred to a mental health specialist.

You’ll usually be referred to your community mental health team. These teams include a range of specialists, including:

  • psychiatrists
  • psychiatric nurses
  • clinical psychologists
  • occupational therapists
  • social workers

A mental health specialist from your local team will carry out a reassessment of your condition. They’ll ask you about your previous treatment and how effective you found it.

Your specialist will then be able to devise a treatment plan for you.

As part of this plan, you may be offered a treatment you’ve not tried before. Or you may be offered a combination of a psychological treatment with medication.