What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder? 6 Potential Risk Factors
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What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder? 6 Potential Risk Factors

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Do you feel like your mind just won’t turn off, like you’re stuck in an endless loop of worrying? You feel like you’re just waiting for something bad to happen, even when there’s no immediate threat. Your body feels tense, your stomach is churning, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t shake the feeling of unease. You can’t relax and you struggle to concentrate. If you can relate, you may have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This frustrating condition doesn’t discriminate and can affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. It’s one of the most widely spread anxiety disorders and affects approximately 3% of the adult population. 


Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder


It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time. However, generalized anxiety disorder can leave you feeling out of control and struggling with your day-to-day activities. Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can vary, and the presence of the following symptoms doesn’t always indicate GAD. You should always consult with a mental health professional who can provide a formal diagnosis. However, some of the common symptoms of GAD include:


  • Restlessness — You constantly feel on edge or keyed up and have a hard time relaxing.


  • Fatigue — Even with adequate rest, you find yourself always tired and emotionally drained. 


  • Difficulty concentrating — GAD can leave you with brain fog, making it hard to focus on tasks or make decisions. You may even experience the feeling of your mind going “blank.”


  • Indecisiveness — Being in the grips of GAD can leave you feeling indecisive and afraid of making the wrong decision.


  • Physical symptoms — GAD doesn’t just wreak havoc with your thoughts. It can cause you to have muscle tension, headaches, trembling, sweating and stomach issues. 


  • Irritability — Always feeling on edge can make you more likely to quickly become irritated. GAD makes you worry about all aspects of your life and this can leave you with a reduced tolerance for additional stress.


  • Sleep challenges — If your mind is constantly racing through potential scenarios for all kinds of situations, you may have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep. You may have a difficult time falling asleep and/or staying asleep, or even have restless, unsatisfying sleep.


  • Excessive worrying — You may find yourself overthinking plans and solutions to situations. You think of all of the worst-case outcomes for small things to big situations. 


  • Guilt — You know that you worry more than you should and you feel guilty that you can’t control it.


  • Perfectionism — You may have people-pleasing tendencies or set excessively high standards for yourself. You are overcome with distress and worry when you don’t meet these expectations. 


  • Avoidance behavior — You go out of your way to avoid situations that might trigger your anxiety. 


Potential risk factors of generalized anxiety disorder 


While the exact cause of GAD isn’t fully understood, it’s believed that there are risk factors that could increase someone’s chances of developing GAD. Common risk factors that increase the likelihood of GAD include:


  • Genetics — If you have a family history of anxiety disorders, you may be more likely to develop GAD. However, this factor is believed by researchers to be less influential in the development of GAD than other types of anxiety disorders.


  • Brain chemistry — Your brain has chemicals called neurotransmitters that are widely believed to help regulate your moods and anxiety. GAD may be developed by an imbalance of these neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.


  • Personality traits — Your personality type can contribute to your likelihood of developing GAD. If you are perfectionistic, highly sensitive, or prone to negative affectivity, these could be risk factors behind your GAD.


  • Traumatic experiences — Stressful life events or traumatic experiences can exacerbate generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. These may include financial difficulties, abuse, relationship problems, job-related stress or health concerns. 


  • Environmental factors — Experiencing a chaotic or unpredictable environment during childhood or experienced abuse or neglect can increase your risk of developing GAD.


  • Underlying health conditions — Chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes or respiratory disorders directly affect stress and anxiety, and can potentially make GAD worse. Certain medications or substance use can also increase your risk if they have side effects like restlessness or agitation.


Can you prevent generalized anxiety disorder?


You may not be able to prevent GAD completely, but you can take steps to help manage your stress and potentially reduce the risk of developing this condition. Here are some examples:


  • Deep breathing
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Yoga
  • Balanced diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Therapy
  • Social support
  • Limiting alcohol and caffeine
  • Realistic expectations


Treatment options for generalized anxiety disorder


Thankfully, you can find several effective treatments to help you manage your GAD and improve your quality of life:


  • Psychotherapy — Your clinically trained therapist can use a unique approach called process-based therapy (PBT) to create a compassionate and fully personalized treatment plan designed just for you. This framework consists of using the most effective components of evidence-based, clearly defined, data-driven techniques to provide you with whole-person-centered care. PBT helps target the drivers behind your GAD and symptoms. Treatment can help you explore these drivers and how they affect your thoughts, emotions and behaviors. You can learn how to develop coping strategies and skills to help you effectively manage your GAD symptoms. This approach can help you achieve long-term relief and improved quality of life. 


  • Medication — Anti-anxiety medications can provide relief from the symptoms of GAD for some people. These medicines work by tweaking the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain that play a role in your anxiety. Commonly prescribed medications are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). 


Lightfully can help you loosen the grip generalized anxiety disorder has on your life


At Lightfully, our mission is to provide you with high-quality mental health care. Our licensed clinical therapists have extensive experience in working with adults who are struggling with generalized anxiety disorder. 


Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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