Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

  • Medical Author: Michael J. Peterson, MD, PhD
  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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Quick GuideGeneralized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Pictures Slideshow: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Pictures Slideshow: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

What are the side effects of anxiety medications?

As anything that is ingested carries risk of side effects, it is important for the anxiety disorder sufferer to work closely with the prescribing doctor to decide whether treatment with medications is an appropriate intervention and if so, which medication should be administered. The kinds of side effects caused by a medication are highly specific to the medication itself and each medication class as a whole. The person being treated should therefore discuss potential medications with their treating physician and be closely monitored for the possibility of side effects that can vary from minor to severe and can uncommonly even be life-threatening. Due to the possible risks to the fetus of a mother being treated for anxiety with medication, psychotherapy should be the first treatment tried when possible in pregnant women, and the woman's obstetrician should be consulted. Similarly, women who are trying to become pregnant, or who may become pregnant, should consult with their doctor about what treatment choices are best for them.

Alternative, natural, and complementary treatments for anxiety

For people who may be wondering how to treat anxiety without prescribed medications, natural remedies may be an option. Alternative and complementary treatment methods such as hypnosis, acupuncture, and herbal supplements (such as kava, valerian, or passionflower) have been found to be helpful for some people with some anxiety disorders, but the research data are still considered to be too limited for many physicians to recommend them. Also, care should be taken when taking any dietary supplements, since dietary supplements and "natural" remedies are not regulated in terms of quality, content, or effectiveness.

Psychotherapy treatments for anxiety

The psychotherapy component of treatment for anxiety disorders is at least as important as the medication treatment. In fact, research shows that counseling alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medication alone in overcoming anxiety for both adults and children. It has also been found to be potentially effective for people with autism in addition to anxiety. The most common type of therapy used to treat anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of therapy seeks to help those with an anxiety disorder identify and decrease the irrational thoughts and behaviors that reinforce anxiety symptoms and can be administered either individually, in group therapy, and even in partner-assisted therapy. Recently, there have also been more online options for CBT available to treat both anxiety and depression. CBT that seeks to help the anxiety sufferer decrease the tendency to pay excessive attention to potential threats has also been found to be helpful.

Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation techniques and gradually increasing exposure to situations that may have previously precipitated anxiety in the individual. Helping the anxiety sufferer to understand and how to handle the emotional forces that may have contributed to developing symptoms (anxiety-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy) has also been found to be effective in teaching an individual with panic disorder how to prevent an anxiety attack or to decrease or stop a panic attack once it starts.

Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results. Improvement is usually noticed in a fairly short period of time, about two to three months, although a full response (or remission of symptoms) can take longer. Thus, appropriate treatment for anxiety can prevent symptoms or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency, bringing significant relief to many people with anxiety.

There are also self-care measures that people with anxiety can do to help make treatment more effective. Since substances like caffeine, alcohol, and illicit drugs can worsen anxiety, those things should be avoided. Other tips to prevent or manage anxiety symptoms include engaging in aerobic exercise and stress-management techniques like deep breathing, massage therapy, and yoga, since these self-help activities have also been found to help decrease the frequency and severity of symptoms. Although many people breathe into a paper bag when afflicted by the hyperventilation that can be associated with panic, the benefit received may be the result of the individual believing it will remedy the symptoms (placebo effect). Also, breathing into a paper bag when one is having trouble breathing can make matters worse when the hyperventilation is the result of conditions of oxygen deprivation, as occurs with an asthma attack or a heart attack.

People with an anxiety disorder may also need treatment for other emotional problems. Depression has often been associated with anxiety, as have alcohol and drug abuse. Recent research also suggests that suicide attempts are more frequent in people with an anxiety disorder. Fortunately, these problems associated with panic disorder can be overcome effectively, just like panic disorder itself. Sadly, many people with anxiety do not seek or receive treatment.

What are complications of generalized anxiety disorder?

There are many possible complications associated with anxiety. Mothers who struggle with anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to have babies who are of low birth weight. Children with anxiety often also suffer from depression, behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), as well as substance abuse. They are at risk for having anxiety as adults, as well as attempting suicide and becoming psychiatrically hospitalized. In terms of achievement, children and teens with anxiety experience a higher rate of failing in school and having low-paying jobs as adults.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/7/2015

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