Generalised anxiety disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder occurs when a person worries so excessively and uncontrollably that it starts to affect their life. Anxiety disorders affect 1 in 6 Australians while almost 1 in 2 reported experiencing stress all or most of the time.

This can help if you:

  • spend a lot of time worrying about anything and everything

  • feel like you can’t control how much you worry

  • have trouble sleeping or concentrating because you worry so much

  • think you might be experiencing GAD symptoms.

Boy looking to the side on front of TV

This page will cover:

  • What is generalised anxiety disorder?

  • Is GAD a serious mental illness?

  • What triggers GAD?

  • What are the symptoms of GAD?

  • How do you test for GAD?

  • Can GAD be cured?

  • How do I live with GAD?

What is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)?

Most people feel anxious occasionally and worry about things such as school, work, family, friends and the future. When faced with stressful situations, such as a job interview or a sports competition, this sort of anxiety can be helpful in keeping us focused and alert. Worries like these vary in intensity and don’t affect our quality of life.

There will also inevitably be times in our lives when we worry even more than usual, such as when someone we care about is unwell or we’re going through a tough time.

People with GAD, though, tend to feel anxious and to worry excessively most of the time, and not just in specific stressful situations. They worry about a number of everyday life events all at once, rather than just about one or two issues, and their anxiety can last for a prolonged period (up to many months). Minor things like being five minutes late for an appointment or forgetting to fold the laundry can become the focus of anxiety, which becomes uncontrollable and affects their energy, concentration and sleep.

Is GAD a serious mental illness?

Mental illness can range from mild to moderate to severe. A serious mental illness is defined as a disorder that significantly impacts your everyday life and stops you from doing regular day-to-day activities.

If GAD prevents you from going to school or work, or from participating in your usual tasks or hobbies, it could be considered a serious mental illness. But not everyone experiences the same level of anxiety, and some people with GAD may only experience mild or moderate challenges. All levels of anxiety are treatable. Learn more about getting help for anxiety here.

What causes GAD?

Generalised anxiety disorder can develop from a combination of individual and environmental factors. This could be related to family history, personality traits, trauma, and stressful events. Unhelpful thinking patterns and beliefs (such as justifying worrying because ‘it will help me prepare for the worst case scenario’) can sometimes make the experience of generalised anxiety worse.

Other things that can trigger GAD include having an imbalance of the brain chemicals that regulate your mood, experiencing a long-term health condition, and misusing drugs or alcohol.

Head here to learn more about what causes anxiety.

What are the symptoms of GAD?

You may have generalised anxiety disorder if you have the signs and symptoms of anxiety for six months or more.

Common GAD symptoms include:

  • worrying about more than one topic, and finding it difficult to control your worrying

  • feeling restless or having difficulty relaxing

  • feeling tired

  • having difficulty concentrating

  • feeling physically tense, especially in your jaw or back

  • having trouble sleeping

  • feeling like your heart is racing and your mouth is dry

  • feeling irritable.

Only a doctor or mental health professional can give a generalised anxiety disorder diagnosis.

How do you get a GAD diagnosis?

A generalised anxiety disorder diagnosis is made after consulting with a doctor and/or mental health professional. Your GP is usually your first point of contact when seeking support for your wellbeing. You can talk to them about what’s worrying you or stressing you out, and about any physical symptoms you’ve been experiencing and how long you’ve been feeling that way. Your GP might do some tests to make sure there are no physical problems that are causing your symptoms. They can also write a mental health care plan for you and refer you to a mental health professional.

When diagnosing an anxiety disorder, a mental health professional will chat with you to try and work out the specific focus of your anxiety. The main characteristic of GAD is excessive worrying about everyday issues. Usually GAD is diagnosed if you’ve been experiencing the related symptoms for six months or more.

Can GAD be cured?

Generalised anxiety disorder can start to affect people at any age – that could be in childhood, during teenage years, in the 30s or even later in life. And each person’s experience with GAD can be totally different. Some people might experience it on and off throughout their life. Another person might only experience GAD once, during a particular period of time.

Anxiety is a natural part of life, so it’s not something that can be completely cured, just like there’s no way to totally get rid of stress or sadness.

However, if you believe you worry too much and it has started to affect your day-to-day life, talk to a GP. They can then refer you to a mental health professionals if needed. Generalised anxiety disorder is treatable, and seeking professional support is the first step in managing your symptoms.

What GAD treatment options are available?

The most effective treatment for generalised anxiety disorder is psychological therapy. One of the most common types of psychological therapy is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which includes the following:

  • Education: learning about why you worry and feel anxious, and how it affects you.

  • Change in thinking: identifying and shifting unhelpful thinking patterns and beliefs.

  • Change in behaviour: identifying ways that changes to your behaviour can help, such as scheduling in appropriate times to worry, rather than worrying all the time.

  • Facing your fears: gradually putting you in situations that make you anxious will help you learn to face and cope with those situations, rather than avoid or try to escape them.

Medication may also be required as GAD treatment in some cases, and is known to be effective when taken alongside psychological treatment.

Learn how to manage your anxiety and get more information about anxiety treatments.

Living with generalised anxiety disorder

As well as getting professional help, there are some other things you can do to make living with generalised anxiety disorder more manageable.

What can I do now?

  • Try some relaxation techniques to ease the symptoms of anxiety.

  • Book a free chat with a peer worker using ReachOut PeerChat.