Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive, recurrent, and prolonged anxiety and worrying. People with generalized anxiety disorder symptoms typically agonize over everyday concerns, such as job responsibilities, finances, health, or family well-being or even such minor matters as household chores, car repairs, being late for appointments, or personal appearance. The focus of anxiety may shift frequently from one concern to another, and sensations may range from mild tension and nervousness to feelings of dread.

In the United States, generalized anxiety disorder or GAD affects 6.8 million adults (about 3 percent of the adult population) each year. Although people with GAD know that the intensity, duration, and frequency of their anxiety and worry are out of proportion to the actual likelihood or impact of the feared event, they still have difficulty controlling their emotions. Perpetual anxiety may impair concentration, memory, and decision-making ability, decrease attention span, and lead to a loss of confidence. Normal activities, such as working, socializing with friends, and maintaining intimate relationships, may become difficult or even impossible.

Generalized anxiety disorder may also produce a range of physical symptoms, including

  • heart palpitations
  • restlessness
  • sweating
  • headaches
  • nausea

Some GAD sufferers, not realizing that GAD is a treatable illness, become accustomed to their condition and assume that it is normal to feel on edge all the time. But the constant anxiety can lead to alcohol abuse or drug abuse. The physical symptoms of GAD, along with alcohol or drug abuse, are often what finally compel a person to seek treatment.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 02 May 2001

Last Modified: 01 Sep 2015