This disorder is marked by chronic tension, worrying and nervousness. Unlike a phobia where the fear is linked to specific situations, objects or events, the anxiety experienced in GAD is diffuse, free-floating and generalised. It is more of a sense of dread that colours everything in life – so the person can’t relax and focus on what’s happening now. Essentially, the person worries about the same things as others – their health, money, family conflicts and so on – but their worrying is well out of proportion to the threat their worries pose.
Symptoms of Generalised Anxiety Disorder include: constant worrying; a pervasive feeling of dread; being constantly troubled by intrusive, anxious thoughts that they can’t switch off; being unable to tolerate uncertainty (especially related to the future); difficulties with focusing and concentrating; feeling overwhelmed and out of control; avoiding situations that make the person anxious; tense muscles and an aching body; sleep difficulties; feeling restless or edgy; tense headaches and migraines and an upset stomach.
With respect to possible causes, studies have suggested that some neurotransmitters (such as serotonin levels) may play a role in GAD. Also, levels of anxiety seem to increase if the receptors for gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) are blocked. Furthermore, although the parasympathetic nervous system is designed to reduce high anxiety levels, people diagnosed with GAD find it hard to regulate their emotions – or to distinguish between threatening and benign stimuli. In terms of heritability, twin studies indicate there appears to be a genetic predisposition towards developing this particular disorder.
In addition to this, the way a person think appears to influence their susceptibility to developing Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Specifically, sufferers appear to demonstrate a bias in their thinking which makes them more prone to registering unhappy or critical facial expressions as opposed to neutral or positive ones. They also tend to overestimate the level of threat (such as likely rejection by the other person), so it is out of line with reality. Thus, they’re more likely to jump to catastrophic conclusions – such as interpreting a phone call late at night as meaning it must mean that something terrible has happened to a loved one. Why does this happen? It has been argued that some people believe that worrying better prepares them to deal with negative events. For example, they think that worrying will make them study better or that worrying will stop bad things happening. Of course, the truth is just the opposite!
In terms of treatment, antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are often effective in relaxing and calming chronic levels of anxiety. These are usually combined with counselling, and especially with CBT.
Relaxation techniques may be helpful, too.