Overview of Anxiety

Anxiety refers to the mental and physical signs experienced in response to perceived danger. When we are threatened by events, people, or even our own thoughts, our bodies experience a physiological and mental arousal that allows us to cope with the threat. This aroused state can be beneficial; in some circumstances, it can save lives; however, anxiety prevents many people from living their lives fully.

The feelings typically associated with anxiety result from the heightened physical-mental state. Physical sensations include nausea, rapid breathing, trembling or shaking hands or legs, accelerated heart rate, and lightheadedness. Mental manifestations include worry, dread, concern, uneasiness, and fear.

A person suffering from an anxiety disorder feels a sense of anxiety that is out of proportion with physical, mental, or emotional stimuli. There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including >panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

The causes of anxiety disorders are not fully known, although the interaction of different neurotransmitters in the brain clearly plays a role. Anxiety disorders may be caused by illegal or prescription drugs, or by medical conditions such as an endocrine disorder; it is important to see a physician to rule out these causes. A person may have a predisposition to anxiety disorders, although it is unclear whether this is a result of genetic factors or a family-influenced way of responding to the world.

Generalized anxiety disorder describes an overall sense of anxiety concerning everyday matters such as work, finances, family problems, and details in daily tasks. The sense of anxiety in these cases is out of proportion with the actual problem and lasts for longer than 6 months.

Generalized anxiety disorder may affect up to 6 percent of the population (women more commonly than men) and is accompanied by symptoms such as sleep disturbances, restlessness, fatigue, muscular tension or tightness, and irritability. The condition usually is chronic and may start in childhood. Its severity waxes and wanes (improves and worsens) according to conditions or situations.

Typically, generalized anxiety disorder is treated with medication. Other treatments such as psychotherapy and relaxation therapies are used as well.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 01 Sep 2015