Helping you get through tough times

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by an unnecessarily hopeless and unrealistic worry about everyday situations such as school, work, relationships or health.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by an unrealistic worry about everyday situations such as school, work, relationships or health.

This worrying has to occur on the majority of days for at least six months for a diagnosis of GAD.

This worry can feel uncontrollable and can be accompanied by at least three additional symptoms, which include:

  • feeling restless
  • getting tired easily
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling cranky
  • tense muscles
  • disturbed sleep.

GAD may affect parts of your life and you might find you’re not able to enjoy the things you normally would.

It’s possible you might also feel more likely to misuse alcohol and drugs as a way to escape or numb overwhelming feelings.

Signs and symptoms

GAD can affect both your physical health and your mental health (behaviour and feelings). Symptoms can depend on a number of factors. They may pass quickly or may stay for a long period of time.

If you, or a friend, have some or many of these symptoms it might be worth talking to your doctor, a clinical psychologist or a counsellor about ways to better understand and deal with GAD.

Some common ways that GAD might affect your mental health (behaviour and feelings) include:

Mood symptoms

  • feeling worried or scared
  • being cranky or being in a constant bad mood
  • feeling uneasy and on edge.

Thinking symptoms

  • worried or a constant feeling that something bad is about to happen
  • always wanting to be good, being very well-behaved, eg never get into trouble at school or with friends (though not necessarily at home)
  • being pessimistic and easily able to identify what may go wrong in any given situation.

Behaviour symptoms

  • often asking many unnecessary questions and require constant reassurance
  • being a loner, or hanging out with a small group of group of people (who are often younger or older)
  • being a perfectionist, taking a long time to complete homework because you try to get it absolutely correct
  • being argumentative (but not usually aggressive) especially if trying to avoid a feared situation
  • not answering questions and rarely volunteer comments or information at school or college
  • getting upset when a mistake is made or if there is a change of routine eg sports day, substitute teacher, unexpected visitors or trip to an unfamiliar place.

Physical symptoms

  • dry mouth and/or difficulty swallowing
  • nightmares
  • difficulty getting to and staying asleep
  • difficulty concentrating
  • muscle tension and headaches
  • rapid heart rate and breathing
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • diarrhoea
  • flare-up of another health problem or illness (e.g. dermatitis, asthma)
  • sexual problems, such as not being having any sexual feelings or being interested in sex.


There are many things that might possibly trigger GAD such as your environment, stressful situations like school exams and/or problems within the family or a trauma.

Some the causes of GAD might be:

  • genetics, or a history of anxiety within your family
  • a stressful event or chain of events such as a family break-up, abuse, ongoing bullying at school, sexual abuse, a death, a relationship break up, family conflict
  • personality style – certain personality types are more at risk of anxiety than others.

There are many things that might possibly trigger GAD such as your environment, stressful situations like school exams and/or problems within the family or a trauma.

Help and support

There are a number of different treatments ways of tackling GAD. A doctor, psychologist or other health professional can talk to you about your symptoms, and discuss alternative ways of treating GAD and coping with it. Help with information and advice on where to go for support can be found in the face-to-face help section.

Try to remember that getting to grips with managing anxiety takes time and you might have good days and not so good ones, but it’s very possible to get to a place where you can manage it really well.

Psychological treatment

Psychological treatment provides either an alternative to medication or works alongside medication and is usually provided by a mental health professional, such as a counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist.

You may be able to find these health professionals through your GP, your local community health centre, privately.

There are a number of psychological treatments or therapies used for anxiety, including psychotherapy, different counselling techniques, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which look at your thoughts and behaviours and ways of changing any negative thought patterns.

For more information on different approaches and ways they work, have a look at types of therapy.

Group counselling is also available, where you can talk to other people who are having similar experiences. Some people can find this really helpful, and it can be good to share your feelings.

Psychological therapies can help to prevent a recurrence of anxiety, and equip you with the skills to know how to handle things if you’re getting overwhelmed.


Treatment in the form of medication may be helpful in managing an anxiety disorder. There are several different types of medication for anxiety, which are prescribed by GPs or psychiatrists.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) and anti-depressants increase the amount of serotonin in the brain.

Tranquilizers can also be used to alleviate some of the physiological symptoms of anxiety although it can make you feel sleepy and lacking in energy. They each work in different ways and have different applications.

Like most medications there can be side-effects and some medications are better suited to adults than young people.

It’s best to ask your doctor about what options you have, how the medication will affect you and how to take the medication safely.

Overall, medication can be an effective and immediate treatment for anxiety, as many of the symptoms are alleviated very quickly.

Self-help for Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Along with seeking treatment to manage your anxiety disorder there are a number of things you can do to help yourself. Some of these include:

Alternative therapies can be good as a supplement to medication and/or therapy.

Eat well and be active – even though you might not feel like it, exercising and eating well can help when you are feeling down. Biological factors, as well as social factors influence how you feel, react and think about things and yourself. Exercise helps stimulate hormones, such as endorphins (known as the happy hormones), which help you feel better about yourself and your life. If you haven’t done a lot of exercise before, it might be a good idea to start doing something small a couple of times each week. For example, a 15 minute walk, or two or three laps of a pool building up to a little more each time.

Get out into nature – evidence shows that when you have some sort of contact with nature, such as pets, plants, gardens or parks, your mood improves and you feel less stressed. Even just going for a walk in the park or at the beach may help.

Write down your feelings – writing down your feelings, or keeping a journal, can be a great way of understanding your feelings and a situation. It can give you some clarity while helping you think about alternative solutions to problems.

Take time out to relax – it’s a good idea to try and take a bit of each day to do something you enjoy. When you are feeling down it may be hard to socialise or motivate yourself to do things. It may help to make a list of all the things you enjoy doing and then plan to do something from this list each day.

Try some breathing exercises – when you’re anxious, your breathing can be quick and shallow, which reduces the amount of oxygen going to your organs. Learning how to breathe efficiently and relax can help reduce some of the physiological symptoms of anxiety.

Talk to someone – although it may seem hard, sharing how you feel with someone you trust can help you get through the hard times. It can help you see alternative ways of solving or thinking about a problem and help to take you to a happier, better place. This might be a trusted adult, your school counsellor, a counsellor outside of school, or a psychologist.

If you are having difficulty speaking about what you’re going through, you might start with sentences such as ‘Right now, I’m feeling…’, ‘I think it started when…’, ‘I’ve been feeling this for…’, ‘My sleep has been…’, ‘Lately school/work/college has been…’.

Find out about support groups – as well as family and friends, support groups can be a place to share experiences and inspiration with others going through similar times. Contact your local community health centre for details of support groups in your area. Alternatively, there are many different support groups online. Check out online help.

Telephone help – if you feel are having difficulty talking to people you know, there are helplines that run 24 hours a day where there’ll always be someone to listen and support you. Have a look at the different services in telephone help.

Set small goals – sometimes people set goals, which are almost unachievable and then feel worse when they cannot reach them. Try to set goals that are achievable for you, even if it’s on a day-by-day, or hour-by-hour, basis. Remember to reward yourself too. Check setting goals for more info.

Reduce your stressstress, even if we don’t notice that we’re feeling it, can get really overwhelming and make you anxious. So, it’s always good to have ways of managing and reducing it.

Go easy on alcohol and drugs – try not to use alcohol and drugs in the hope of feeling better. The feeling is temporary and the after-effects often make the problem worse.

Give it time – changes in behaviour don’t happen overnight and it might take some time before all GAD symptoms go away. It’s a matter of taking baby steps, and getting the right support to get through this.

This article was last reviewed on 29 January 2019

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