Understanding the signs, symptoms, causes and effects of anxiety is an important first step toward healing and recovery.
Learn about anxiety
A certain amount of anxiety in life is normal. In fact, if you completely lack anxiety it can actually impede your ability to get things done. Normal stress reactions, such as instituting coping mechanisms to decrease or eliminate the problem situation or emotion, are actually beneficial. However, for certain people, the anxiety levels they experience day-to-day becomes too high to be helpful. When someone is unable to do anything to lessen his or her anxiety and it impedes his or her ability to perform normal tasks, the stress has become an anxiety disorder. Many people in the U.S. experience overwhelming, uncontrollable anxiety without seeking treatment. When left untreated, anxiety can spiral out of control until the person becomes so nervous, stressed, and agitated he or she feels incapable of managing his or her anxiety, or anything else in life. Anxiety is treatable and the skilled staff at Options can help you with your anxiety and related difficulties.
One particular type of anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can be a problem for many people. This type of anxiety is often described as “free floating anxiety,” as the individual may be unable to identify specific triggers for the anxiety. GAD involves unrealistic, exaggerated, or excessive anxiety that appears to come out of nowhere. Individuals with GAD worry about normal, everyday events without cause for anxiety.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions that impacts people today. Individuals of all ages can be impacted by anxiety, and roughly 40 million people are said to meet the criteria required to be diagnosed with at least one anxiety disorder.
Causes and risk factors for anxiety
Although no specific cause for GAD has been identified, several factors are believed to contribute to its development. These include genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental factors.
Genetic: Findings suggest that generalized anxiety disorder can be passed down in families. Individuals who have a first-degree relative with GAD are more likely to develop GAD themselves.
Brain Chemistry: The chemicals that are responsible for mood states and communicating messages about physiological arousal between nerve cells are called neurotransmitters. When these chemicals are imbalanced, the brain may interpret normal physiological arousal as the physiological arousal that occurs when one is exposed to an anxiety-provoking stressor, despite the lack of threat.
Brain Function: New research suggests that people with GAD may have weaker connections between the amygdala, a brain structure responsible for alerting us to threats in our environment, instigating the fight or flight response, and parts of the brain responsible for emotional reactions. It has been hypothesized that this weakened connection causes the brain’s “panic button” to remain on and to signal danger constantly. This causes the entire body to be constantly prepared for danger.
Environmental: When children grow up exposed to chronic stressors and have not developed adequate coping mechanisms, they may begin to develop negative emotional symptoms. This can cause these children to only recognize their negative feelings and not what causes them. This can become habitual, until they come to interpret everything as anxiety provoking.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety
General anxiety disorder can lead to a number of symptoms, not all of which may appear to be connected to the disorder. Symptoms will vary from individual to individual depending upon their coping abilities, temperament, and life circumstances. Common symptoms of GAD may include:
- Exaggerated worry over impending danger, occurring almost all day, on more days than not, about numerous activities, situations and relationships, that occurs for at least six months
- Inability to control the worry
- Unrealistic fears
- Exaggerated concerns about friends, school, or activities
- Extreme anxiety over sleeping away from home
- Persistent anxiety leads to significant problems in daily functioning
- Avoidance of situations or people due to fear they will trigger an increase in anxiety
- Reluctance to leave home due to sense of impending danger or catastrophe
- Procrastinating due to feeling overwhelmed
- Clingy behavior with family members
- Refusing to go to work or school
- Feeling restless or “keyed up”
- Inexplicable body pains
- Sweaty hands
- Elevated pulse or heart rate
- Dry mouth
- “Butterflies in the stomach”
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle tension, especially in the shoulders, neck, and back
- Sleep problems including trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, early morning awakening, or restless, unsatisfying sleep
- Exaggerated startle response
- Trouble concentrating, mind going blank, or losing train of thought
- Unrealistic view of problems
- Difficulty paying attention
- Memory problems
- Constant thoughts and worries about self-safety and safety of parents, relatives, and friends
Effects of anxiety
Due to the overwhelming sense of near-constant anxiety, individuals who struggle with untreated generalized anxiety disorder often suffer from many effects of the disorder. The effects will vary depending upon severity of illness, amount of social support, coping skills, and other factors. Effects of GAD may include:
- Substance abuse
- Negative effects on work or school
- Relationship problems
- Sense of loss of control over life
- Loss of self-esteem
- Learned helplessness
- Lack of sense of personal self-efficacy
- Poorer response to treatment for physical illnesses
- Overall poor quality of life
- Decline in emotional well-being
Anxiety and co-occurring disorders
Several other mental illnesses have been known to co-occur with GAD. These co-occurring disorders may include:
- Other anxiety disorders
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety (in children)
- Selective mutism (in children)
- Major depressive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder