What is an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial in some situations. For some people, however, anxiety can become excessive. While the person suffering may realize that the anxiety is too much, they may also have difficulty controlling it and it may negatively affect their day-to-day living. There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. Collectively, they are the most common mental disorders.


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)


GAD symptoms include the following:


Mental or cognitive

  • Excessive worry—difficulty letting go of problems
  • Overanalyzing problems
  • Difficulty falling to sleep because “My mind won’t shut off”
  • Often imagining the worst happening
  • Difficulty concentrating


  • Rarely feeling relaxed or calm
  • Persistent nervousness
  • Frequently irritable or moody
  • Feeling worn out, particularly in the afternoon
  • Startling easily
  • Feeling “on edge” or restless


  • Muscular
    • Muscle tension (particularly in neck and shoulders)
    • Tension headaches
    • Tremor or shakiness
    • Teeth grinding
  • Chest
    • Abnormal or irregular breathing
    • Heart palpitations
    • Tightness in your chest
  • Stomach
    • Indigestion
    • Diarrhea, constipation or both
    • Nausea
    • Dry mouth
  • Other
    • Frequent need to urinate
    • Sweating excessively or having hot flashes


What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (and how would I know if I have it)?


Ask yourself this question: How often do you feel calm and relaxed? If you can’t say “most of the time”, you might have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and worry are normal parts of life. But it is not normal to feel anxious and worried all or most of the time. Most anxiety disorders begin in response to real life stressors. Our bodies’ normal stress response turns on to help us handle difficult or dangerous situations, but then turn off when the danger is passed. For approximately 10% of us however, once the stress response is turned on, we have difficulty turning it off. This condition is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD.


Chronic sleep problems are one of the most common manifestations of a persistent anxiety disorder. Many patients with GAD have difficulty falling asleep because their mind “won’t turn off”. Once they do finally fall asleep, they can have difficulty falling into a deep and restful sleep. They may “toss and turn” or wake up in response to even small noises. Once they do wake up, their mind may quickly go into “worry mode” making it difficult to fall back to sleep. As a result, individuals with GAD often wake up feeling poorly rested.


Persistent muscle tension, cramping, twitching, and pain are also signs of GAD.  In an emergency, our muscles tighten to prepare ourselves for action. In individuals with GAD, the muscles cannot return to the relaxed position when the immediate stress has passed. The neck and shoulders are the most common places that GAD sufferers will feel the tightness and even pain of excessive muscle tension. Tension headaches are also common and result from excessive muscle tension in the back of the head, the jaw and forehead. GAD is a very common problem among Fibromyalgia sufferers in whom chronic muscle tension has resulted in numerous very tightly contracted “knots”.


The overactive stress response system in individuals with GAD can lead to symptoms in almost every part of our body. We can experience irregular breathing patterns. This can be manifested by short of breath, feeling as if you are holding your breath, frequent “sighing” (having to take a particularly deep breath) or even, at times, hyperventilating or breathing too fast. Since the stress response can cause our bodies to release adrenaline, individuals with GAD can experience symptoms of heart palpitations, rapid heart beats, sweaty palms, dry mouth, and hand tremor. Our digestive system is also strongly affected by anxiety. Nausea, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pains are common in GAD. Anxiety disorders such as GAD have been identified in a majority of individuals diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Treatment of the anxiety disorder will often lead to a marked reduction in IBS symptoms.


Follow these links to the APA website for anxiety disorders and NIMH website for anxiety disorders.

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