Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is a disorder in which, on most days, a person experiences levels of anxiety which either occur for no reason, are abnormally high, or persist for an unusually long time. The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include physical effects such as a dry mouth, nausea, shaking and sweating. Rapid breathing and a fast heart rate with irregular beats may also be experienced. In some cases, chest pain or headaches could occur. As well as the physical symptoms of anxiety, GAD can also cause feelings of tiredness, sleep problems, thinking difficulties, tenseness and irritability.
While anxiety is a normal response to stress, in people with GAD, anxiety is greater than would be expected for a given cause, and it tends to persist even when the cause has disappeared. Sometimes, there is no apparent trigger for the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. It is thought that a number of different factors give rise to GAD, including a person's genetic background and whether his or her parents have any psychological disorders. Anxiety has been known to run in families. Traumatic events, such as the loss of a parent, can also make the development of anxiety more likely.
The physical symptoms of anxiety arise because interaction between the brain and sympathetic nervous system sets up a fight or flight response. Nerves and the hormone adrenaline act to prepare the body for action. The heart is stimulated, blood pressure rises and the digestive system is suppressed, giving rise to anxiety symptoms such as palpitations, breathlessness, dry mouth, nausea and sweating. While anxiety is a normal response to certain situations, when that response becomes abnormal, GAD may result.
Other symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, such as fatigue and lack of concentration, may be quite disabling. Sleep problems in GAD usually involve difficulties in falling asleep and frequent wakening. The person may feel irritable and on edge, and these feelings, and the inability to concentrate, may be increased by tiredness. Alcohol, drugs and cigarettes may be used to obtain relief from symptoms, but this may lead to increased problems in the long term.
When GAD symptoms exist for longer than six months, a diagnosis can be made. Sometimes, the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can be caused by other factors such as caffeine, drugs, heart conditions and thyroid disorders. It is important to rule out other causes when making a diagnosis. GAD is sometimes difficult to distinguish from other mental disorders such as depression.
Treating the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder usually involves using non-drug options such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a talking treatment. In CBT, unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving are identified and changed to reduce anxiety symptoms. Without any treatment, GAD tends to persist and may be present throughout life, but with treatment recovery is possible.