What Are The 5 Symptoms Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

About generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a long-term mental health condition characterized by excessive, exaggerated worry about daily life for no obvious reason. It includes physical and mental symptoms where a person can feel restless, have trouble concentrating, and/or have dizziness. Symptoms tend to begin around adolescence but can begin in adulthood, and it is more common in women than in men. 

Causes and risk factors of GAD

Experts have been unable to identify any exact causes of General Anxiety Disorder, a combination of genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental stressors may be contributing factors to its development. Research on genetics suggests that family history can be linked to the development of GAD. If a family member has GAD, it is more likely that another family member will have it as well. However, no anxiety genes have not been identified and it is possible that this happens because of families passing it down through lifestyle or environment. Evidence from brain chemistry research has shown a link between GAD and nerve cell connection problems in parts of the brain associated with thinking and emotion. Nerve cell connection problems can cause problems related to mood or anxiety. Environmental factors such as traumatic or stressful events can contribute to the development of GAD. If stress gets out of hand, it can cause the condition to worsen. 


Symptoms of GAD can be psychological (mental) or physical. Because these symptoms are sometimes associated with physical ailments, this causes many persons with GAD to be misdiagnosed. 

Psychological symptoms

Psychological symptoms of GAD are not just feelings of a constant worry. Other psychological symptoms include restlessness, irritability, and a sense of dread. Individuals may withdraw themselves from social contact to avoid any feelings of worry. They will likely opt out of stressful activities, like going to work, causing more self-worry and lower self-esteem. 

Physical symptoms 

Some physical symptoms associated with GAD include sleep disturbance, restlessness, and muscle tension. These symptoms are reflective of psychological symptoms. Some individuals can experience other symptoms that can resemble those of a heart attack such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and a numbing sensation in the fingers or toes. It is important to seek emergency care in the instance that an individual is unsure whether they are experiencing anxiety symptoms or a heart attack. 

Criteria for diagnosing GAD

The 5th edition of the ​​Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists the diagnostic criteria for GAD. A person must fit all of the criteria in order to be diagnosed with GAD. The diagnostic criteria lists 6 diagnostic factors: excessive anxiety occurring more days than not for at least six months, difficulty controlling the worry, the worry is associated with three (or more) psychological or physical symptoms, the anxiety causes social impairment, the disturbance is not tied to the effects of a medication or another medical condition, and the disturbance is not better explained by another mental disorder. 

Conditions with similar symptoms 

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder can also overlap with the symptoms of other mental disorders. 

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) used to be classified as an anxiety disorder; it now is classified in its own section of the DSM-5. The initial difference between OCD and GAD is the presence of compulsions or repetitive behaviours that persons feel compelled to perform in response to an obsession. Individuals with OCD display compulsive behaviours to cope with anxiety whereas individuals with GAD do not. Persons with GAD also possess a different thought pattern than those with OCD. GAD is associated with excessive worry about real-life events, OCD is better associated with obsessions which are typically persistent and unwanted. Obsessions are also usually more unrealistic. There is an overlap between these two disorders where the co-occurrence of the two is quite common and GAD can develop later on for those with OCD.

Panic disorder

Panic Disorder and GAD are both anxiety disorders and they share numerous symptoms, yet they remain two separate mental disorders. Though they both feature excessive worry as a symptom, Panic Disorder is more characterized by unexpected and recurring panic attacks. Individuals with Panic Disorder are constantly worried about a panic attack happening and they have a fear of losing control. GAD is more centred around a constant, pervasive worry about everyday events. 

Social anxiety disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) and GAD both are associated with feelings of anxiety and they are known to cause the individual to catastrophize, the belief that danger is imminent though it is highly unlikely that it will actually occur. The main difference between the two disorders is that SAD is more associated with excessive worry related to social occasions, and GAD is more associated with excessive worry about everything going on in one’s life. 

Post traumatic stress disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs after individual witnesses a traumatic event. This causes the individual to develop symptoms related to re-experiencing their trauma. It is different from GAD because of how the disorder is manifested. Individuals with GAD have a long and consistent history of anxiety related to various situations; individuals with PTSD experience anxiety in relation to the major life event that affected them. 

Situational anxiety

Situational anxiety is not recognized as a mental disorder, instead, it is viewed as an instance where anxiety symptoms arise in response to a specific situation. The symptoms experienced in situational anxiety are similar to the symptoms individuals diagnosed with GAD experience. It is different from GAD because GAD involves a continuous state of worry and situational anxiety occurs in response to a specific situation. 

When to seek medical advice

Feelings of anxiety are completely normal in our day-to-day lives. If these feelings begin to affect a person’s daily life or cause them distress it is recommended that they seek medical advice. A medical professional will ask about symptoms and any worries or fears a person might be experiencing to find out whether they have GAD and what the best treatment option will suit their situation. There are several different treatments available to those who are diagnosed with GAD. Psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) help to change the way an individual thinks and behaves to better their situation. Psychopharmacological options are also available like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which help to ease symptoms and control anxiety levels. 


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a long-term mental health condition that is characterized by persistent feelings of distress or worry related to everyday life. This disorder can disrupt a person’s life and cause them to socially withdraw themselves if their condition worsens. There are psychological and physical symptoms associated with GAD and because the disorder shares so many symptoms with other medical disorders it is usually misdiagnosed. Health professionals have a set of diagnostic criteria to use when identifying whether an individual has GAD. If symptoms of anxiety begin to disrupt a person’s daily life, it is recommended that they seek medical advice so that they can be accurately diagnosed and provided with a treatment plan that eases their symptoms. 

This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Carla Alvarez

Master of Science - MS, Global Mental Health, University of Glasgow, Scotland
Carla is a Psychology Intern and a Medical Writer.

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