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What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

written by: Shel1488 • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/22/2011

Nagging bills, declining health, failing relationships—daily life comes with a long list of troubling items. We all have to stumble through patches of fear and worry at some point or another; however, individuals living with generalized anxiety disorder spend most of their time in those dark spots.

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    What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

    Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition defined by excessive anxiety due to constant and exaggerated worrying. For example, while a person without generalized anxiety disorder may occasionally worry about their health, a person with this anxiety disorder may develop a fixation on unlikely or unrealistic possibilities involving health troubles. The persistence of these exaggerated worries will interfere with the individual’s ability to function in everyday life.

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    What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder? Psychological Symptoms

    It’s no secret that excessive worry is psychologically harmful. Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include mental troubles such as loss of concentration and a persistent feeling of edginess. The individual may also become irritable, perhaps due to frustrations arising from the inability to control their worrisome thoughts. The severity of these symptoms will fluctuate.

    In some cases, generalized anxiety disorder may be concurrent with depression disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic disorders, substance abuse and phobias. The presence of one mental illness may increase the severity of another.

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    Physical Symptoms

    Generalized anxiety disorder will also take a physical toll on the body. The condition can cause persistent muscle tension, leading to aches and soreness. For example, frequent clinching of the jaw can cause temporomandibular joint disorder. All of that anxiety can also stir up numerous tension headaches.

    In the lower regions of the body, the stress can cause diarrhea or the more prolonged condition of irritable bowel syndrome. Even if diarrhea does not occur, the worrisome individual may regularly feel nauseous.

    With all of this negative mental activity going on, a person with generalized anxiety disorder is sure to tire out easily. However, sleep may be in short supply. Nagging worries can frequently interrupt sleep cycles or keep a person up all night.

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    Risk Factors

    Each year, approximately 4 million Americans deal with generalized anxiety disorder. While the exact cause of the disorder remains elusive, several risk factors exist.

    • It is possible that generalized anxiety disorder is genetic, meaning that some people are simply predisposed to the condition through family lineage. Whether through nature or nurture, a worrisome parent may produce a worrisome child.
    • Anxiety disorders are generally more prevalent in women than in men. However, it is possible that men are simply less willing to report their problems due to social expectations.
    • Stressful life changes may aid the development of generalized anxiety disorder. When a loved one is seriously ill, a person tends to worry more often. When a relationship is ending or falling apart, a person can become anxious. And when a person moves to a new area, where they may lack a stable social life, they may be prone to experience high levels of anxiety and discomfort. If a fixation on worrying arises from these changes, the disorder may develop.
    • Unbalanced levels of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) may contribute to generalized anxiety disorder.
    • Addictions to caffeine and alcohol can increase anxiety. Even withdrawal from these substances can contribute to the disorder.
    • Traumatic events, especially those experienced in childhood, may increase the risk of generalized anxiety disorder. Individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder are especially at risk.