What is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)?

Most people feel anxious and worried from time to time, especially when faced with stressful situations like taking an exam, speaking in public, playing competitive sport or going for a job interview. This sort of anxiety can make you feel alert and focused, helping you get things done faster or perform at your best.

People with GAD, however, feel anxious and worried most of the time, not just in specific stressful situations, and these worries are intense, persistent and interfere with their normal lives. Their worries relate to several aspect of everyday life, including work, health, family and/or financial issues, rather than just one issue. Even minor things such as household chores or being late for an appointment can become the focus of anxiety, leading to uncontrollable worries and a feeling that something terrible will happen.

What are the signs and symptoms of GAD?

You may have GAD if the specific signs and symptoms are present for six months or more, and on more days than not. These include physical symptoms as well excessive worrying to the point that everyday activities like working, studying or socialising, become difficult.

People with GAD may have related disorders, most commonly depressionsocial phobia (characterised by avoidance of social situations) or other anxiety conditions. They may also misuse alcohol or drugs and may experience a range of physical health problems such as headaches or bowel complaints.

Symptom checklist

For six months or more, on more days than not, have you:

  • felt very worried about a number of events or activities
  • found it hard to stop worrying
  • found that your anxiety made it difficult for you to do everyday activities (e.g. work, study, seeing friends and family)?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, have you also experienced three or more of the following:
  • felt restless or on edge
  • felt easily tired
  • had difficulty concentrating
  • felt irritable
  • had muscle tension (e.g. sore jaw or back)
  • had trouble sleeping (e.g. difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless sleep)?

If you have answered yes, you may be experiencing generalised anxiety disorder. 

How common is GAD and who experiences it?

Every year in Australia, approximately 14 per cent of the population (1 in 7) experience an anxiety condition and it is estimated that just under 3 per cent experience GAD. Nearly 6 per cent of the population will experience GAD in their lifetime.1

The condition tends to affect more women than men. It can occur at any time in life and is common in all age groups, including children and older people, although on average it starts around 30 years of age.

Children with GAD typically worry about issues related to performance at school or sporting events, punctuality, natural disasters or war. Behaviour that sometimes accompany GAD in children includes:

  • being over-conforming
  • being a perfectionist
  • being unsure of oneself
  • needing to re-do tasks
  • seeking regular and frequent approval and assurance from parents, teachers, siblings or friends
  • asking 'Yes but, what if…?'
Many people with GAD are not able to identify the precise onset of their concerns but are aware that having a tendency to worry has existed for a long time, often describing themselves as having always been ‘a worrier’.

What causes GAD?

Often, a combination of factors may be involved in the development of GAD.

  • Biological factors: Some changes in brain functioning have been associated with GAD.
  • Family history: People with GAD often have a history of mental health problems in their family. However, this doesn’t mean that a person will automatically develop anxiety if a parent or close relative has had a mental health condition.
  • Stressful life events: People may be more at risk if they experience a major life change that causes stress, such as the birth of a child, the breakdown/loss of a close relationship, or moving house/job. Physical, sexual or emotional abuse also increase the risk of developing GAD, as do other traumatic experiences in childhood, such as the death of or separation from a parent.
  • Psychological factors: Some personality traits may put a person at greater risk of GAD, including: − being sensitive − being emotional or experiencing general nervousness − inability to tolerate frustration − feeling inhibited − having perfectionistic tendencies.

What treatments are available for GAD?

GAD is treatable and seeking professional support is the first step towards recovery. There are two main types of effective treatments for GAD; psychological treatments will generally be the first line of treatment. In some severe cases, medication can also be effective. 


1. For a full list of references for the statistics on this page, and any others across the website, please visit the references page and search through the relevant category.