Understanding and coping with generalised anxiety disorder

What Is generalised anxiety disorder?

The word anxiety relates to feelings of unease, worry or fear and most of us will have experienced this at some point in our lives. Sitting an exam or attending a job interview for example, can instil feelings of anxiety. It is perfectly normal in situations such as this to be anxious or nervous.

Anxiety is the primary symptom in a number of different mental health conditions such as panic attacks, phobias, obsessive-compulsive behaviours and post-traumatic stress. The differentiating factor between generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and normal levels of anxiety is that the anxiety is ongoing and the reactions and feelings are usually highly disproportionate to the risk or worry involved. Meaning, it is much easier for a small incident or event to create huge levels of anxiety. GAD can be described as a persistent and long term condition that causes its sufferers to endure anxiety, worry and fear to the point at which it is crippling, and severely impairs their day to day lives.

Usually sufferers will be anxious around a variety of different circumstances and situations, which are not always the same, rather than one specific thing, which can be the case with phobias for example. Often GAD can cause people to catasrophise about situations, for example, waiting for their partner to come home and thinking they must have been in an accident instead of a likely scenario such as being stuck in traffic.

Others characteristics of GAD can be finding it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything, an unsettled mind or racing thoughts. GAD can often impact one’s ability to sleep or even manage relationships, or hold down a job. This is due to the ongoing nature of the anxieties experienced and how as soon as one issue is resolved, another will take its place, thus continuing the cyclical nature of anxiety.


Although the causes of GAD are generally unknown, it has been shown that there can usually be a number of factors involved. Below I have listed some of these contributing factors. While these contributing factors may increase the chances of developing GAD, many people develop the condition for no apparent reason.

  • Suffering from a long term health condition such as chronic fatigue or arthritis.
  • A history or experience of major stress or trauma such as domestic violence, child abuse or bullying.
  • Genetics – If you have a close relative with GAD, you are five times more likely to develop it.
  • Over activity in the parts of the brain associated with behaviour and emotion.
  • A history of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • An imbalance of the mood regulating chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline that occur in the brain.

Who is affected?

  • GAD is a common condition in the UK, and it is estimated that up to 5% of the population are affected.
  • Slightly more women than men are affected.
  • The condition is more common in people from the ages of 35-59.


GAD usually causes the sufferer to experience both physical and psychological symptoms, and the severity or frequency of these will differ from person to person. One person could feel the entire range of difficulties, where as another could only experience one or two.

Psychological symptoms

  • A sense of dread.
  • Feeling on edge.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Irritability.
  • Racing thoughts.
  • Worrying or intrusive thoughts.
  • Thinking about disturbing scenarios.
  • Not able to relax.

Physical symptoms

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Tension headaches.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Digestive difficulties.

The physical symptoms of anxiety will cause the sufferer to experience further worry, anguish and increase their sense of unease. While other anxiety disorders have a specific trigger, GAD is often unpredictable, making it feel there is no way to stop feeling anxious. GAD is a condition with far reaching impacts upon an individual’s life, which can make it difficult to manage relationships, jobs and daily life in general.


There are several different types of support or treatment for GAD, including:


Talk to someone you trust

Talking to a trusted friend, partner or family member about your anxious thoughts, or diagnosis of GAD can be very helpful. You may find that they have encountered a similar problem, and therefore are able to help. Even just having someone show that they care is useful.

Try to shift your focus

You may find that trying to shift your focus can distract you, even if momentarily, from your anxious thoughts and feelings. Look at a picture, or something which you find interesting or comforting. Really notice the details, the smells or sounds, and concentrate on them.

Try reassuring yourself

It can be helpful to tell yourself that the symptoms you are experiencing are actually caused by anxiety, and that it is not really dangerous and will pass in time. This can help you feel calmer and less fearful of future attacks.


If self-help options have not been particularly helpful, you may benefit from speaking to a qualified psychotherapist or counsellor. Talking therapies will give you a confidential space to explore your thoughts, feelings and ideas, and work on ways to manage your GAD or anxiety. Therapy will give you space to explore the roots of your anxiety, consider its components and triggers. As well as allowing you to explore the rules that can govern your GAD. Ultimately, this can assist you to develop a more dynamic and engaged way of living, which is not entirely filled with or controlled by anxiety.

Moving Forward

Although a diagnosis of GAD can seem impossible to surpass, there are ways of managing, controlling and understanding your anxiety. Although this is of course not an easy road to go down, and will at points involve setbacks and difficulties, there is every chance that you can, with a combination of self-help and or talking therapies, overcome and manage GAD and anxiety. Helping yourself or seeking it from others takes courage, but is the first step toward a life with more balance and peace.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua's an experienced integrative psychotherapist who's worked with people who've experienced anxiety for a variety of reasons. He has assisted them in exploring their feelings & experiences at depth, & has helped them gain understanding & clarity As well as working on strategies and ways to cope & manage. He's based in Shoreditch, East London.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals