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Anxiety is a diffuse, unpleasant, and often vague subjective feeling of apprehension accompanied by objective symptoms of autonomic nervous system arousal. The experience of anxiety is associated with a sense of danger or a lack of control over events. The psychological component varies from individual to individual and is strongly influenced by personality and coping mechanisms.

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Many factors contribute to the experience of anxiety by individuals in our society. We live in a rapidly changing culture characterized by continuous technologic advancements, proliferation of ever more refined information, and a mass media and entertainment industry saturated with violence and sexuality, all of which promote feelings of insecurity. In the workplace, downsizing, restructuring, mergers, and specialization are commonplace; transient work relationships and the elimination of benefits such as health insurance and retirement provisions increase the sense of insecurity.

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Anxiety is pathologic when it occurs in situations that do not call for fear or when the degree of anxiety is excessive for the situation. Anxiety may occur as a result of life events, as a symptom of a primary anxiety disorder, as a secondary response to another psychiatric disorder or medical illness, or as a side effect of a medication.

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The majority of individuals with mental disorders receive psychiatric care from primary care settings, whereas fewer than 20% receive care in specialized mental health settings. Among mental disorders, anxiety disorders have the highest overall prevalence rate, yet only 23%-59% of anxious patients receive treatment. The estimated 1-year prevalence rate is 17% with a lifetime prevalence rate at 25%. Patients with anxiety disorders are at increased risk of other medical comorbidities, longer hospital stays, more procedures, higher overall health care costs, failure in school or at work, low-paying jobs, and financial dependence in the form of welfare or other government subsidies.

Lam RM: Challenges in the treatment of anxiety disorders: beyond guidelines. Int J Psychiatry Clin Pract 2006;10(suppl 3):18.
Mendlowicz MV, Stein MB: Quality of life in individuals with anxiety disorders. Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:669.  [PubMed: 10784456]

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Biomedical Influences

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Because the symptoms of anxiety are so varied and prevalent, several etiologies exist to explain them. A recent meta-analysis revealed a significant genetic component, especially for panic disorder, generalized anxiety, and phobias. Temperament, which has genetic roots, is a broad vulnerability factor for anxiety disorders.

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The inhibitory transmitter g-aminobutyric acid (GABA) occupies about 40% of all synapses and is clearly implicated in the anxiety disorders, as is the endocrine system. Exposure to a stressor activates the release of an endogenous opioid, β-endorphin, which is co-released with adrenocorticotropic hormone.

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Psychological and Social Influences

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Family dysfunction and parental psychopathology are involved in the development and maintenance of anxiety. Families of anxious children are more involved, controlling, and rejecting, and less intimate than are families who do not manifest anxiety. Parents of ...

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