Biological, Cognitive-Behavioral, and Sociocultural Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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What are the Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

The causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) are still being researched, but the evidence thus far shows biological, cognitive-behavioral and sociocultural factors that contribute to its development. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) confirms that there is evidence that genes play a modest role in the disorder. Further research may specify the genetic role as a cause of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-IV-TR) states that anxiety as a trait has a familial association and recent twin studies suggest a genetic contribution to the development of GAD that may also be closely related to those for Major Depressive Disorder. The co-occurrence of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse are common, as GAD rarely occurs alone (NIMH). The fact that GAD does not typically exist in isolation from other mental illness is significant. Although causation is difficult to distinguish from correlation without adequate research, the relationship is one to be remembered in the understanding of GAD.

Distorted Cognitions as a Cause of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Daily reactions to stressful situations often reveal cognitive processes as effective or faulty. Generalized Anxiety Disorder results from cognitive distortions that arise when a person’s attention shifts from an actual problem, such as a broken down car, to magnified worries which are unproportional to the existing stressor (Halgin & Whitbourne, 2003). As the problem is magnified due to anxiety, the person continuously develops more to worry about. The heightened distress response to typical mishaps, problems or accidents may lead to chronic anxiety.

Sociocultural Factors and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder are associated with various sociocultural factors. According to the DSM-IV-TR, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is diagnosed more frequently in women and in epidemiological studies, the sex ratio is approximately two-thirds female. Corcoran and Walsh (2006) said that GAD is more common in those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the unemployed, women who work only in the home, as well as higher education, and higher job levels held by people in higher socioeconomic groups. Poverty includes many life stressors that may contribute to the development of GAD.

Interestingly, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is more common among those who have been previously married than among those who are currently married or have never been married (Corcoran & Walsh, 2006). The tension and consequent loss of a marriage generate anxiety and challenge those who are overwhelmed by the demand to cope. According to Halgin and Whitbourne (2003), living in the Northeast section of the United States is associated with higher rates of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Lifestyles influence how people function and maintain well-being. In a rushed society, as much of the Northeast section of the United States is known for, people are more likely to experience the pressure of inevitable problems and the resulting worry that terrorizes a person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In children, GAD is often related to expectations for performance in school or athletics even when they are not being judged. The societal messages to achieve and be perfect are often ingrained, possibly contributing to the development of anxiety disorders including GAD.


American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edition, (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Corcoran, J. & Walsh, J. (2006). Clinical assessment and diagnosis in social work practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Halgin, R. P. & Whitbourne, S. K. (2003). Abnormal psychology: Clinical perspectives on psychological disorders. Boston: McGraw Hill.

National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. (