Anxiety Causes, Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

Often times the signs of anxiety can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of anxiety.

Understanding Anxiety

Learn about anxiety

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by the presence of excessive anxiety and fear over everyday occurrences. Everyone has moments where they worry about certain things, but individuals with GAD experience worries that are much more excessive than what is considered normal. These worries are more pronounced, pervasive, and distressing than worries associated with everyday life. Often people with GAD will worry or stress even when there is no real reason to feel that way.

Individuals suffering with generalized anxiety disorder report that their anxiety can develop out of nowhere and the cause of anxiety often cannot be identified. The presence of anxiety is continuous and upsetting. Individuals with GAD have a difficult time controlling their anxiety, creating a sense of helplessness because they are not in complete control of their reactions. Anxiety symptoms associated with GAD can interfere in all aspects of life, often leaving the individual concerned by the next occurrence of anxiety.


Anxiety statistics

In the United States it’s estimated that 0.9% of adolescents and 2.9% of adults suffer from GAD in a given year. However, lifetime risk for developing the disorder is 9%. The average age of onset for GAD is 30 years of age, peaking in adulthood and middle age. Females are twice as likely to experience GAD. However, this may not be entirely accurate because it has been shown that men are less likely to report anxiety symptoms. The younger an individual is when the disorder develops the more likely that individual will present with other co-occurring disorders. GAD is more prevalent in individuals of European descent then those of non-European descent, in particular Asian, African, Native American, and Pacific Islanders.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for anxiety

There are a number of difference factors that have been hypothesized as potential causes for the development of generalized anxiety disorder. However, it is likely that the cause of GAD is the result of a combination of many different factors. Some causes may include:

GeneticNumerous studies have shown that there exists a genetic component. Individuals who have family members, especially first relatives – such as parents – will have a greater chance of developing this disorder.

Brain StructureCertain areas of the brain, especially those that regulate fear, memory, and stress, can play a role in the development of GAD. If these parts of the brain are not functioning properly it can cause an individual to feel continuously anxious.

NeurotransmittersResearch has shown that individuals with GAD tend to have abnormal levels of specific neurotransmitters. When levels of these neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, are abnormal the brain may not effectively communicate with other areas of the brain, resulting in higher levels of anxiety and stress.

EnvironmentalIndividuals who have experienced severe stressors such as traumatic events, death of loved ones, exposure to dangerous situations, divorce, sudden illness, or job losses are more likely to develop generalized anxiety disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of anxiety

There are a number of signs and symptoms that are commonly associated with GAD. However, not everyone experiences the exact same symptoms. Some are specific to children and teens while others may be experienced by adults.

Childhood and Adolescent GAD Symptoms:

  • Overly concerned with having even small things be “perfect”
  • Uncontrollable worry
  • Insecurity
  • Reassurance-seeking behavior
  • Unrealistic worries
  • Inability to process information learned at school
  • Stunted personal growth
  • Being self-critical of even the most minor details
  • Impaired social relationships
  • Social isolation
  • Irritability
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Poor concentration at school or during sports events
  • Inability to follow directions
  • Sleep problems
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Social conforming to fit in
  • Restlessness

Adult GAD Symptoms:

  • Excessive and unrealistic worry occurring almost all day, on more days than not
  • Excessive or unwarranted anxiety
  • Awareness that the worrying is excessive
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Trembling
  • Trouble with concentration, attention, and memory
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Mind going blank
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Muscle tension
  • Body aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Rapid pulse, elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing at times
  • Sweating
  • The need to go to the bathroom frequently
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless that things will improve
  • Unrealistic view of problems


Effects of anxiety

While the symptoms of GAD may come and go, this disorder rarely resolves itself without treatment. As a result of excessive worrying, GAD can have a huge impact on an individual’s life. Some of the common effects may include:

Pediatric and adolescent effects of GAD:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Sleep disturbances
  • School problems
  • Withdrawing from age-appropriate activities
  • Demanding behaviors
  • “Self-medication” with drugs or alcohol
  • Social isolation
  • Headaches
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Strained relationship with parents and siblings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of poor self-worth

Adult Effects of GAD:

  • Problems functioning or effectively working
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Social isolation
  • Withdrawal from activities once enjoyed
  • Marital problems
  • Difficulty carrying out daily activities
  • Inability to do things quickly or accurately
  • Inability to interact normally with others
  • Feeling unable to do anything to make things better
  • Incapacitation during anxiety episodes
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Loss of motivation
  • Feelings of helplessness

Co-Occurring Disorders

Anxiety and co-occurring disorders

The most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Other anxiety disorders (e.g. panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias)
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use and abuse disorders
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)