Is generalized anxiety disorder a serious mental illness?

Miriam Calleja
Author: Miriam Calleja Medical Reviewer: Dr. Leila Khurshid Last updated:

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a serious mental condition characterized by excessive worry and anxiety that is unfounded and much more severe than the norm. People with GAD often have difficulty controlling their level of worry, which can interfere with their daily lives and severely impact their quality of life.

There are some key differences between ‘normal’ anxiety and GAD. While everybody goes through periods of anxiety, this is generally directly due to an identifiable cause, e.g., a deadline at work, sitting for an exam, or having a medical test. In people with GAD, the anxiety tends to be constant and cannot be controlled. The worry and fear can be mild or severe, but it is not directed toward one specific incident or event. Instead, the long-term condition results in anxiety surrounding various circumstances and concerns.

Those with GAD typically worry about various topics, including personal health, work, family, and world events. The worry can be about things that are far beyond their control. The physical symptoms of GAD can be just as debilitating as the psychological symptoms and may include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.

The cause of GAD is not fully understood, but it is believed to be linked to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. For example, people with a family history of anxiety or other mental health disorders may be more likely to develop GAD. Furthermore, stressful life events, such as the death of a loved one or losing a job, may trigger the onset of GAD. 

Research suggests that having a history of traumatic experiences such as abuse or domestic violence may lead to GAD. However, there are many for whom GAD develops for no identifiable reason.

GAD can profoundly affect every aspect of a person’s everyday life, making it difficult to work, socialize, and even take care of day-to-day responsibilities. While there is no cure for GAD, there are effective treatments that can help lessen the symptoms and improve the quality of life. [1]

How does GAD affect daily life?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States, affecting around 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the population, in any given year. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common types of anxiety disorder.

People with GAD generally realize their anxiety is more extreme than the situation warrants. However, the worry cycle feels beyond their control, and they find it impossible to stop. This makes most days challenging to get through. Some people use coping strategies such as being hyper-organized, reasoning that planning will help them control situations. Others think that worrying may prevent adverse events from happening.

People with GAD often feel tense and on edge and may have difficulty sleeping or concentrating. The anxiety can be challenging to control and may interfere with daily work, school, or social interactions. GAD can also lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and fatigue. In severe cases, the anxiety may be so severe that it leads to panic attacks. 

Physical symptoms affect daily life and may prevent the patient from leading a productive and active life. Knowing that certain situations may make the symptoms worse, they may start to avoid the possibility of events that have uncertain or challenging outcomes. Thus, a person may avoid applying for a promotion, organizing a family dinner, or traveling. They might also turn down opportunities to avoid further worry.

Symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, and fainting may be alarming, but they are caused by the body’s natural response to stress. However, it may be difficult even to enjoy leisure activities if they are interrupted by stomachaches and headaches. [2]

Treatment options for generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a long-term condition, but some different treatments can help. Some people with GAD will only need to use one type of treatment, but for most people, a combination of treatments will work best. For example, GAD can be treated with psychotherapy, medication, support groups, and healthy habits.


One treatment option for GAD is psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. This therapy can help you understand your thoughts and feelings and what may be causing your anxiety. It also teaches you how to better cope with and control your anxiety. Common types of psychotherapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with a mental health professional or therapist, which can be conducted on a one-to-one basis or in groups. The treatment generally lasts for several months. [3]

Another option is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which uses mindfulness and goal-setting to decrease unease and worry. However, this is a newer type of psychotherapy with fewer studies available on its effectiveness.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is used in cases where GAD has been caused by trauma. This structured therapy uses recalling disturbing experiences to reconceptualize the memory and decrease the stressful reaction. The strength and vividness of the emotions and reactions attached to the memory are reduced. This is particularly useful in cases where the trauma has not been appropriately processed. [4]


The two main medications used to treat GAD include antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Antidepressants balance chemicals in your brain that regulate your mood and can take several weeks to start working. Anti-anxiety drugs reduce anxiety symptoms and can start working within a week. In addition, beta-blockers treat physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, and trembling.

Support Groups

You will meet other people struggling with anxiety disorders in a support group, which can be a helpful way to share information and tips for managing symptoms and give and receive emotional support from others who understand what you are going through.

Healthy Habits

Finally, one of the most important things you can do to treat GAD is to develop healthy habits, including eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and avoiding alcohol and drugs. These healthy habits will help reduce your anxiety symptoms and improve your overall mental and phyiscal health. [3]

  1. Overview—Generalized anxiety disorder in adults. (2021, February 10). NHS.UK.
  2. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). (n.d.). Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
  3. Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
  4. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. (2017, July 31). American Psychological Association. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
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Miriam Calleja
Author Miriam Calleja Writer

Miriam Calleja is a pharmacist with an educational background from the University of Malta and the European Medicines Agency.

Published: Jan 13th 2023, Last edited: Sep 8th 2023

Dr. Leila Khurshid
Medical Reviewer Dr. Leila Khurshid PharmD, BCPS

Dr. Leila Khursid is a medical reviewer with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree and completed a PGY1 Pharmacy Residency from St. Mark's Hospital.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Jan 13th 2023