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What is an Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?

Anxiety is a natural condition. It's the evolution of your fight/flight response – designed specifically to warn you that there is a danger present and prepare you to react to it. Without anxiety, you would walk into dark alleys alone at night, get into fights with people 10 times your size, and drive 150 miles per hour in a residential area. Anxiety is designed to keep you safe.

Unfortunately, many people find that their fight/flight system has gone haywire, and is causing them to experience significant distress even when no immediate danger is present. This is what's known as an anxiety disorder – a psychological condition where you consistently find yourself anxious without any clear cause.

Introduction to Generalized Anxiety Disorder

There is more than one type of anxiety disorder. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that occurs after traumatic events, and involves a very serious fear of the event happening again. This is one example of several types of anxiety disorders, each of which can affect your quality of life.

But when most people talk about anxiety disorders, they're usually talking about Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. As the name suggests, GAD is a psychological disorder characterized by chronic, persistent anxiety without a specific cause.

Those that suffer from GAD often find themselves worrying all the time, as though they can't turn off their mind from worried thinking. This may be seen in a variety of ways:

  • Disaster Thinking – Those with GAD may convince themselves of worst case scenarios, worried that they're going to get mugged, catch a terminal disease, that their friends and family may be in danger, and so on.
  • Unyielding Thoughts – Those with GAD may also simply be unable to turn off minor worries, focusing on them too strongly and possibly obsessing over them. For example, they may fear talking to their boss, and while their boss isn't going to do anything too harmful, they simply cannot stop thinking about the fact that they have to talk to their boss.

Generalized anxiety disorder may cause people to worry about problems that are big, small, real, and imaginary. It's not so much the worries themselves that are relevant. It's the way that GAD seems to make those worries persistent nearly every day.

Those living with generalized anxiety disorder often find themselves with a constant feeling of stress and tension. In fact, it's possible to have the symptoms of GAD even without worries. If you're constantly feeling stressed or tense, even when you do not feel worried over any specific issue, you may still be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

GAD makes dealing with real problems more challenging and creates problems when there are none. It can cause you to feel like you're losing control, and make it hard to imagine living without stress and anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder can be a very serious problem.

Think You're Living With Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

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What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Like most psychological conditions, generalized anxiety disorder doesn’t have a clear cause for each individual. It's likely that several issues can create GAD:

  • Biology/Genetics
  • Experiences
  • Upbringing

Most likely, some degree of each of these factors reinforces the others. Some people may be more genetically prone to GAD. Others may find that the way that their individual experiences may have created it. You can even develop GAD simply from being too busy to practice stress coping, or from failing to exercise. It's not possible to know each and every factor, because factors differ for each individual patient.

It does appear that those whose families have a history of generalized anxiety disorder appear to be more likely to experience GAD in the future. Yet it's also clear that GAD is not just biological, because many people are able to overcome their anxiety – something that would not be possible if their anxiety was caused by something out of their control.

According to researchers Wittchen and Hoyer, the incidence of GAD tends to increase with age, and women are two times more likely to be diagnosed with GAD. It should be noted, however, that men are also less likely to seek out a diagnosis. It also appears that life conditions may play a role in GAD development, although some issues (such as income level, education, and religious affiliation) do not appear to have an effect on GAD.

Check out the following chart to see the incidence of this condition across age groups and sexes:

How to Tell if You Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Only a psychologist can definitively tell you if you quality for a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis. In addition, it's possible to be suffering from significant anxiety that can benefit from treatment, even if you don’t technically qualify for a GAD diagnosis.

However, it may be possible to tell if you have GAD. Psychologists use a set of guidelines called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose GAD, and according to the DSM-IV-TR (the latest iteration of the DSM), to qualify for a diagnosis an individual must express all or most of the following criteria:

  • Apprehensive Expectations: An excessive, overarching sense of worry and anxiety experienced most of a period of six months, with at least three of the following symptoms:
    • Restlessness/edginess.
    • Fatigue
    • Concentration problems.
    • Absentmindedness.
    • Irritability.
    • Muscle tension/cramps.
    • Restlessness/difficulty sleeping.
  • Inability to Relax: Patients suffering from GAD struggle to stop their worrying, and often their worries become more intense and overwhelming over time.
  • No Focus: Anxiousness seen by the individual doesn't appear to have a focus or a justifiable cause, nor does it cause symptoms like other anxiety disorders.
  • Trouble Functioning: The patients stress and anxiety causes an obstacle in the patient's personal relationships, careers, or social functioning.
  • No Source: All of the above disturbances are not caused by substance abuse or medical condition.

Psychologists use the DSM-IV-TR qualifications along with their personal experience to diagnose GAD. Not everyone experiencing persistent anxiety qualifies for a diagnosis, but all persistent anxiety can benefit from treatment when it disrupts your ability to experience an enjoyable life.

How Common is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

GAD has the ability you feel lonely and isolated from the world. Yet as many as 3 to 5% of the country suffers from GAD at any given time, and the number of people dealing with persistent anxiety that doesn’t qualify for a diagnosis is considerably higher. Anxiety is an incredibly common condition, and the second most frequent psychological disorder after depression.

It's possible to also suffer from GAD and another anxiety disorder.

Perhaps the greatest problem with GAD is that most people that have the disorder avoid seeking treatment until nearly a decade after it first began. For some, GAD is "manageable" enough that they think they can get through it on their own, but as the years go by they find they can't get the relief they need and end up seeking outside help.

Treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder

If you think you may have generalized anxiety disorder – or any type of anxiety disorder – you may want to see a psychologist or psychiatrist to get an accurate diagnosis. Remember, it's possible to deal with persistent anxiety without a diagnosis of GAD, and it can still be treated – it will just require a different approach than those that have generalized anxiety disorder.

Treatment depends a great deal on what you're suffering from. The best place to start is with my free 7 minute anxiety test. I developed the test specifically to give you an idea of what type of anxiety you're dealing with and provide you with relevant treatment choices.

So start by taking the test here.


Wittchen, H. and Hoyer J. Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Nature and Course, Ph.D. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 2001; pp 16-17

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). NIMH RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.

Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults. NIMH RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.

Anxiety Disorders. NIMH, n.d. Web.