Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Full description of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Definition, signs, symptoms, causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Full description of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Definition, signs, symptoms, causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Description of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder isn't about day-to-day worries. GAD is about chronic, excessive worry over events that are unlikely to occur. They may worry about finances just because a bill arrives in the mail, or health because they saw a news story on heart attacks. Then there's family problems, relationships, work. People with GAD can't turn off the worry. They dwell on what could go wrong.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder occurs when normal levels of anxiety become severe, prevent everyday activities, and persist over more than a few months. Normal life becomes difficult for people with GAD because they experience high levels of worry, dreading the immediate future and concentrating on all the bad possibilities that could come their way, but feel unable to take action or control events.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects 3 to 4 percent of the population at any given time, with women twice as likely to be affected as men.

Diagnostic Criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).

The person finds it difficult to control the worry.

The anxiety and worry are associated with three (or more) of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms present for more days than not for the past 6 months). Note: Only one item is required in children.

  • restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  • being easily fatigued
  • difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)

The focus of the anxiety and worry is not confined to features of an Axis I disorder, e.g., the anxiety or worry is not about having a Panic Attack (as in Panic Disorder), being embarrassed in public (as in Social Phobia), being contaminated (as in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), being away from home or close relatives (as in Separation Anxiety Disorder), gaining weight (as in Anorexia Nervosa), having multiple physical complaints (as in Somatization Disorder), or having a serious illness (as in Hypochondriasis), and the anxiety and worry do not occur exclusively during Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism) and does not occur exclusively during a Mood Disorder, a Psychotic Disorder, or a Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

The exact cause of Generalized Anxiety Disorder isn't known, but biological, genetic and environmental factors seem to play a role in the development of GAD. People with GAD tend to have a family history of anxiety disorders. However, anxiety and fearfulness can also be learned behaviors transmitted to youngsters by adults in their lives. People of certain personality types are more susceptible to anxiety disorders, and, logically, a combination of stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety.

For comprehensive information on generalized and other types of anxiety disorders, visit the Anxiety-Panic Community.

Sources: 1. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 2. Merck Manual, Home Edition for Patients and Caregivers, last revised 2006.

APA Reference
Writer, H. (2009, January 2). Generalized Anxiety Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 25 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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