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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

In generalized anxiety disorder, a person has frequent or nearly constant, nagging feelings of worry or anxiety. These feelings are either unusually intense or out of proportion to the real troubles and dangers of the person's everyday life.

The disorder is defined as persistent worry for more days than not, for at least several months. In some cases, a person with generalized anxiety disorder feels he or she has always been a worrier, even since childhood or adolescence. In other cases, the anxiety may be triggered by a crisis or a period of stress, such as a job loss, a family illness or the death of a relative. The crisis or stress may have ended, but an unexplained feeling of anxiety may last months or years.

In addition to suffering from constant (or non-stop) worries and anxieties, people with generalized anxiety disorder may have low self-esteem or feel insecure because they see people's intentions or events in negative terms, or they experience them as intimidating or critical. Physical symptoms may lead them to seek treatment from a primary care doctor, cardiologist, pulmonary specialist or gastroenterologist. Stress can intensify the anxiety.

Experts believe that some people with this disorder have a genetic (inherited) tendency to develop it. The disorder probably stems from how a variety of brain structures communicate with each other as they manage the fear response. Chemical messengers, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin, transmit signals along the circuits connecting brain regions. The medications used to treat anxiety affect these circuits.

About 3% to 8% of people in the United States have generalized anxiety disorder. Women have the problem twice as often as men. The average adult patient first seeks professional help between the ages of 20 and 30. However, the illness can occur at any age. Generalized anxiety disorder also has been diagnosed in young children, teenagers and elderly people. The illness is the most common anxiety disorder affecting people age 65 and older.

Of all psychiatric illnesses, generalized anxiety disorder is the least likely to occur alone. Between 50% and 90% of people with the disorder also have at least one other problem, usually panic disorder, a phobia, depression, dysthymia (a less severe form of depression), alcoholism or some other form of substance abuse.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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