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What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder? The Symptoms and Causes of GAD

What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Let’s face it, life is stressful. Worried and anxious feelings, from time to time, are a completely normal and healthy part of the human experience. Stressful situations present themselves on a regular basis as part of modern life, and anxiety can be a natural response to these situations and even help us perform at our most focused and alert. Some examples of typical stress-inducing situations may include public speaking engagements, academic exams, physical challenges such as sports, and job interviews. 

When someone experiences anxiety a majority of the time, in situations that don’t necessarily warrant such a response, they may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder or GAD. GAD is characterized by ongoing and excessive feelings of anxiety and worry that are difficult to control. These intrusive feelings typically interfere with a person’s ability to function as a productive member of society.

In this article, we will explore the possible reasons why a person may develop generalized anxiety disorder, as well as discuss its symptoms and different anxiety treatment methods.

Symptoms of GAD

If you feel as though you may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, there is a distinct set of signs and symptoms to look out for. As a general rule, you may be suffering from GAD if the following signs and symptoms are present for a period of six months or more, and on more days than not.

This checklist includes both intangible and tangible symptoms that can impede or hinder daily life and participation in society. While symptoms of GAD may vary from person to person, they will typically include

  • Persistent and intrusive worry about a number of situations or areas that are out of proportion to the impact or gravity of the event
  • A preoccupation with, and overthinking of, plans and solutions to all possible worst-case scenarios and outcomes
  • Falsely determining that situations and events are threatening in some way, even if they are completely benign
  • Difficulties facing situations when you are uncertain of what the outcome will be
  • Indecisiveness over, and an intense fear of, making the incorrect choice or decision
  • Preoccupation with, and trouble setting aside, past worries
  • Feelings of mental and physical restlessness and the intense inability to relax
  • Difficulty concentrating on important tasks, feeling that your mind “goes blank”

While generalized anxiety disorder may be characterized by all of the psychological symptoms above, it can also cause certain physical symptoms that can be a hindrance to daily life. Some of these physical symptoms may include

  • Fatigue and general lethargy or lack of energy
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Tension of the body and muscles leading to aches and pains
  • Physically trembling or feeling unsettled or “twitchy”
  • General nervousness leading to being easily startled or on edge
  • Excessive sweating of the palms or other parts of the body
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, or irritable bowels
  • General tension and irritability

The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can come and go at various intensities. For example, there may be times when you are not completely consumed by your anxieties, but feel anxious for no apparent logical reason. This may include the preoccupation with the safety of yourself or loved ones, even when there is no elevated risk of danger. Sometimes, GAD may manifest itself in a general feeling that something negative is about to happen with no specific detail.

What Causes GAD?

As is the case with any mental health condition, generalized anxiety disorder is a complex issue. The exact root of the issue may be hard to determine, but GAD is generally believed to be the result of a complex interaction of genetic, biological, trauma-related, and psychological factors. We’ll explore some of these possible causes below:

Biological Factors

Some research suggests that brain structure may play a factor in developing GAD. For example, the amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for automatic fear response, as well as the integration of memory and emotion. Research has shown that there are some patterns of amygdala activation that have been shown to be consistent among patients who suffer from GAD. 

Knowing that the amygdala is very important in the ability of a person to discern and experience fear, it is not a surprise that imaging studies of people that have been diagnosed with GAD show an increase in amygdala activity during the processing of negative emotions. Because of this abnormal function of the amygdala, people with GAD may misinterpret the social behavior of others.

Genetic Factors

Your genetic makeup may indeed play a role in determining whether or not you will develop generalized anxiety disorder. Studies have shown that first degree relatives of someone with GAD are more likely to develop anxiety and mood disorders in general, with a specifically increased risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder. First degree relatives include family members closest to you, such as a parent, child, or sibling.

On top of this predisposed risk, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has determined that women are twice as likely as men to develop generalized anxiety disorder. This is the case for the majority of anxiety disorders as well.

Trauma or Experience Based Factors

While clearly both genetic and biological factors have the potential to contribute to a person developing GAD, a greater percentage of people start to develop the disorder due to complex environmental, psychological, and social factors.

Traumatic experiences can play a big role in the development of generalized anxiety disorder, especially in the formative childhood years. Difficult events such as neglect, mental or physical abuse, the death of a loved one, divorce, isolation, and abandonment can all be contributing factors. In fact, studies have found that traumatic events and maltreatment in early childhood can severely affect the physical development of a child’s brain, leaving them predisposed to anxiety disorder later in life.

Some behavioral health professionals also believe that anxiety can be a learned behavior. They suggest that having a primary caregiver or parent that exhibits anxious behavior during a child’s formative years can greatly increase their risk of developing GAD. Children learn how to overcome challenging and stressful situations from the important people that are close to them. If their caregiver exhibits poor or less effective stress management, their children do the same. These early social interactions and learning experiences can directly affect the development of GAD later in life.

Social Media and Mental Health

People are more connected to each other now than ever before. While this has numerous positive effects on modern life, the ever-present nature of social media can be mentally invasive.

Research has shown that more time spent using social media has been linked to the increased presence of anxiety in young adults. For someone who suffers from GAD, interpreting social interactions and perceived threats can be difficult. Interacting with people on social media can present the same challenges as interacting with people in person. This includes feelings of loneliness, rejection, abandonment, and even humiliation.

People who suffer from GAD can feel a heightened sense of danger or rejection due to social misinterpretation, even when there is no actual threat present. Social media interactions can be interpreted in the same inaccurate ways. In many cases, this can be exacerbated because of the lack of non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice in social media interactions. 

Treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) at SUN Behavioral Delaware

There are many treatment options available for managing GAD and its symptoms, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be the most effective way to help people overcome their anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy changes thoughts, feelings, core beliefs, and actions that drive the issues you’re facing. It goes far beyond medication to help you identify the negative thoughts contributing to anxiety and your response in situations that can further your anxiety.

Generalized anxiety disorder treatment at SUN Behavioral Delaware will teach you strength-based strategies to equip you in neutralizing anxious thoughts. Our program provides these treatments in a trauma-informed care environment with the core principles of safety, trustworthiness, empowerment, collaboration, and choice driving all interactions.


  • Is generalized anxiety disorder genetic?

Genetics may play a role in determining whether or not you will develop generalized anxiety disorder. Studies have shown that immediate relatives of someone with GAD are more likely to develop anxiety and mood disorders. Studies have also shown that women are twice as likely as men to develop GAD.

  • Is GAD a serious mental illness?

Any mental disorders that cause difficulties in a person’s daily life can be considered to be a serious mental illness. Generalized anxiety disorder can make every social interaction and event extremely difficult. Luckily, there are many treatment options for anxiety.

  • Can you get rid of generalized anxiety disorder?

Like many mental illnesses, it can be very difficult to completely overcome generalized anxiety disorder, but many effective treatment options do exist. Through therapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) many people are able to manage their anxiety and live a completely healthy life.

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