Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is more than the normal anxiety people experience day to day. It’s chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, even though nothing seems to provoke it. Having this disorder means always anticipating disaster, often worrying excessively about health, money, family, or work. Sometimes, though, the source of the worry is hard to pinpoint.
Simply the thought of getting through the day provokes anxiety.
People with GAD can’t seem to shake their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants — that it’s irrational. People with GAD also seem unable to relax. They often have trouble falling or staying asleep. Their worries are accompanied by physical symptoms, especially trembling, twitching, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, sweating, or hot flashes. They may feel lightheaded or out of breath. They may feel nauseated or have to go to the bathroom frequently. Or they might feel as though they have a lump in the throat.
Many individuals with GAD startle more easily than other people. They tend to feel tired, have trouble concentrating, and sometimes suffer depression, too.
Usually the impairment associated with GAD is mild and people with the disorder don’t feel too restricted in social settings or on the job. Unlike many other anxiety disorders, people with GAD don’t characteristically avoid certain situations as a result of their disorder. However, if severe, GAD can be very debilitating, making it difficult to carry out even the most ordinary daily activities.
GAD comes on gradually and most often hits people in childhood or adolescence, but can begin in adulthood, too. It’s more common in women than in men and often occurs in relatives of affected persons. It’s diagnosed when someone spends at least 6 months worried excessively about a number of everyday problems.
Specific Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
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; children do not need to meet as many criteria–only 1 is needed).
- Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)
Additionally, the anxiety or worry is not specifically about having a panic attack (though panic attacks can occur within a person with GAD), 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 (PTSD).
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.
This criteria has been updated for the current DSM-5 (2013); diagnostic code 300.02.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety/index.shtml on March 1, 2019.