What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)? - Symptoms, Treatment & Causes

Instructor: Ron Fritz
In this lesson, you'll learn about generalized anxiety disorder and the difference between it and everyday anxiety. You will also review the causes behind it and the forms of treatment for people suffering from the disorder.


Most people have heard of the fable character named Chicken Little from the story of a chicken that is hit in the head by a falling object and becomes convinced that 'the sky is falling.' The misguided fowl hysterically runs around shouting doom to anyone within earshot and proclaiming that the world is coming to an end. Chicken Little most likely suffered from generalized anxiety disorder.


Anxiety is a part of life and is an emotion that everyone has felt at one time or another. Your company announces layoffs in the upcoming weeks and you begin to feel anxious because of the uncertainty of what lies ahead. You receive a phone call from your child's school requesting that you come in to meet with the guidance counselor, and your mind races as you picture all the different scenarios that could have prompted the invitation. Anxiety is often defined as a feeling of nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. For most people, anxiety subsides when the stressor is removed.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

When someone is in a constant state of anxiety and each stressor is continuously replaced by another, that individual may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, also known as GAD. Although someone with everyday anxiety feels the way they do because of some event (baby crying, taxes due), a person with GAD may feel anxious for no identifiable reason at all. People with generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively and tend to always expect disaster around the next corner ('the sky is falling'). When GAD is present, the worry is unrealistic or completely out of proportion to the situation.

GAD Diagnostic Criteria

DSM-IV Manual
DSM-IV Manual

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV) defines generalized anxiety disorder as having excessive anxiety and worry, occurring more days than not, for at least 6 months, and about a number of events or activities. The manual also requires that the individual find it difficult to control his or her worry. Finally, the DSM-IV states that the individual must exhibit at least three of the following six symptoms to meet diagnostic criteria:

  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  2. Being easily fatigued
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  4. Irritability
  5. Muscle tension
  6. Sleep disturbance

Causes & Comorbidity

Not much is known about the causes behind generalized anxiety disorder. A known coexistence, or comorbidity, of GAD with other disorders, such as major depressive disorder and dysthymia, lend support to the notion that a genetic component is present. Recent twin studies have provided evidence to support a genetic link and have related generalized anxiety disorder to the same factors associated with major depressive disorder.

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