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Exploring the Physical Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/24/2011

People with generalized anxiety disorder experience many psychological symptoms, but are there any physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder? What causes these symptoms?

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    What are the Physical Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

    There are several different categories of physical GAD symptoms, including those that affect the muscles or digestive system.

    Muscle Aches and Pains: People with GAD are very likely to experience muscular tension, or aches and pains, in various parts of the body. Most often, the shoulders, back, and neck are affected. This is the result of tension than causes the person to contract his or her muscles. Sometimes, clenching the jaw unconsciously, or grinding the teeth, might be another symptom.

    Digestive System: Chronic anxiety and tension can also affect the digestive system. Diarrhea and constipation are common symptoms; most people will tend towards one or the other, but some might experience sporadic episodes of both conditions. Stomach pain and nausea are other common digestive symptoms related to GAD.

    Nervous System: Not surprisingly, GAD can cause symptoms relating to the nervous system. People with GAD are sometimes jumpy and twitchy, and might over-react to stimuli such as loud noises. They are often restless and might feel on-edge much of the time. (These are a sort of physical counterpart to psychological symptoms such as irritability and the inability to concentrate.)

    Fatigue and Sleep Disturbances: Feeling fatigued much of the time, or getting tired easily, are other features that are common to many people with GAD. Sleep disturbances are also common. These might take the form of an inability to get to sleep, or a tendency to wake up very early. Some people might have difficultly staying asleep, while others might tend to sleep for longer than is usual, and might have trouble waking up in the mornings.

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    What causes Physical GAD Symptoms?

    Acute or chronic anxiety, and the physical symptoms that go along with it, are a remnant of a nervous system response that was once enormously important for survival. This is known as the “fight or flight" response. Humankind’s ancestors depended on this response for survival because it provided the body with adrenaline and other hormones necessary for quick action. When faced with a predator or another life-threatening situation, the fight or flight response provided our ancestors with the physical energy to fight for their lives, or flee to safety. Most of the time, this response was not active: the body would react in this way only in the presence of danger.

    In the Western world people no longer live this way; however, the fight or flight response still occurs in response to stressful situations, even if they are not life-threatening. For some people, this response is triggered abnormally, in response to stimuli that most people do not find dangerous. People with GAD experience chronic low-level or acute anxiety because their bodies are constantly reacting to what their minds perceive as threatening situations. In other words, the fight or flight response is constantly in the ON position.

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    The Fight or Flight Response in GAD

    What happens during the fight or flight response? Some of the things that occur are:

    • The body is flooded with adrenaline, increasing alertness and causing the individual to react more quickly and strongly to environmental stimuli such as movement and sound.
    • Further hormonal changes cause more rapid breathing, faster heart rate, shaking, and faster reflexes.
    • Blood is diverted away from the digestive system to large muscle groups such as the shoulders, biceps, and thighs to help prepare them for action. Storage cells release glucose and fats to provide energy the body can use for running or fighting.

    Our ancestors used these physical changes to fight or flee in dangerous situations—thus expending all the extra hormones and energy the body produces during the response. After the crisis is over and the body has expended its extra stores, the individual gradually returns to a normal state of arousal.

    In someone with GAD, this response is provoked when there is no physical danger, but the physical effects of the response occur. People with this disorder can have a fight or flight response that is more or less constantly active, or that is triggered very easily by stimuli that most people do not perceive as threatening. Over weeks or months, this chronic state of arousal means that the large muscles, digestive system, and nervous system are constantly being stimulated, giving rise to physical symptoms of GAD.

    Looking at what happens during the fight or flight response, it’s easy to see a relationship between this response and the physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. This basis for the physical symptoms of the disorder is the reason why some types of therapy for GAD are based around helping an individual to learn relaxation techniques. These can help soothe the fight or flight response and reduce anxiety.

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    References

    Anxiety & Panic Disorder Center of Los Angeles: What is Anxiety?

    Anxiety Disorders Association of America: Generalized Anxiety Disorder

    Brown, T., O’Leary. A., and Barlow, D. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Excerpt from The Clinical Handbook of Psychological Disorders (3rd Ed.).

    Physician’s Desktop Reference: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

    U.S. National Institute of Mental Health: Generalized Anxiety Disorder