General Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.
People with the disorder, which is also referred to as GAD, experience excessive anxiety and worry, often expecting the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern. They anticipate disaster and may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues. GAD is diagnosed when a person finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not for at least six months and has three or more symptoms.
If your child has generalized anxiety disorder, he or she will worry excessively about a variety of things such as grades, family issues, relationships with peers, and performance in sports.
Children with GAD tend to be very hard on themselves and strive for perfection. They may also seek constant approval or reassurance from others.
Sometimes just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety. They don’t know how to stop the worry cycle and feel it is beyond their control, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants.
GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, in any given year. Women are twice as likely to be affected.
The disorder comes on gradually and can begin across the life cycle, though the risk is highest between childhood and middle age. Although the exact cause of GAD is unknown, there is evidence that biological factors, family background, and life experiences, particularly stressful ones, play a role.
When their anxiety level is mild, people with GAD can function socially and be gainfully employed. Although they may avoid some situations because they have the disorder, some people can have difficulty carrying out the simplest daily activities when their anxiety is severe.
Symptoms of GAD include the following:
restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
being easily fatigued
difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
Like other medical conditions, anxiety disorders tend to be chronic unless properly treated. Most kids find that they need professional guidance to successfully manage and overcome their anxiety.
Several scientifically proven and effective treatment options are available for children with anxiety disorders. The two treatments that most help children are cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication.
Your doctor or therapist may recommend one or a combination of treatments. Learn how to choose a therapist for your child.
No one treatment method works best for every child; one child may respond better, or sooner, to a particular method than another child with the same diagnosis.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of talk therapy that has been scientifically shown to be effective in treating anxiety disorders. CBT teaches skills and techniques to your child that she can use to reduce her anxiety.
Your child will learn to identify and replace negative thinking patterns and behaviors with positive ones. He will also learn to separate realistic from unrealistic thoughts and will receive “homework” to practice what is learned in therapy. These are techniques that your child can use immediately and for years to come.
The therapist can work with you to ensure progress is made at home and in school, and he or she can give advice on how the entire family can best manage your child’s symptoms.
CBT is generally short-term—sessions last about 12 weeks—but the benefits are long-term. Read treatment FAQs.
Other forms of therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, uses strategies of acceptance and mindfulness (living in the moment and experiencing things without judgment) as a way to cope with unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, emphasizes taking responsibility for one’s problems and helps children examine how they deal with conflict and intense negative emotions.
Prescription medications can be useful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. They are also often used in conjunction with therapy. In fact, a major research study found that a combination of CBT and an antidepressant worked better for children ages 7-17 than either treatment alone.
Medication can be a short-term or long-term treatment option, depending on how severe your child’s symptoms are and how he or she responds to treatment.
It is also essential to let your doctor know about other prescription or over-the-counter medications your child takes, even if it is for a short period.