In an article published in Psychology Today, Prof. Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., Clinical Psychology, has explained an alternative theory of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

GAD is a psychological disorder marked by chronic, pervasive, free-floating worry, he wrote. The lifetime prevalence of GAD is estimated to be 4%-6%. The disorder is highly comorbid with other anxiety and mood disorders, and it predicts many negative health outcomes, including heart disease, sleep problems, and higher overall mortality rates.

“Worry, defined as repetitive thoughts about negative future events, is a part of life,” Prof. Shpancer said. “At the right dose, it can be adaptive, helping direct our attention and improve our preparation in the face of potential threats.”

“People with GAD, however, experience an extreme, chronic, and unrelenting worry that they feel unable to control. Worry no longer works for them but rather enslaves them. People with GAD tend to overestimate the likelihood of negative consequences and predict that the consequences will be catastrophic,” he continued. “Their worries metastasize to involve all areas of everyday life, including health, family, relationships, occupational status, and finances.”

Prof. Shpancer, who is the author of the novel The Good Psychologist, wrote, “GAD is a debilitating and socially consequential disorder, yet our understanding of it is far from complete.”

“Several theories have attempted over the past few decades to explain the mechanisms underlying GAD. Early theorizing, led by the work of Penn State University psychologist Thomas Borkovec, was premised on the notion that constant worry is an avoidance mechanism, whereby the cognitive preoccupation with negative outcomes serves to protect individuals from experiencing negative emotions. Thinking negative thoughts, in other words, was seen as a way to avoid feeling negative feelings.”

He said that a cognitive avoidance model argues that “worry has a verbal-linguistic nature and acts as an avoidance strategy to inhibit clear mental images and associated somatic and emotional activation… The inhibition of somatic responses and mental images prevents the emotional processing of fear, and thus prolongs worry.”

Prof. Shpancer is a practicing clinician with the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology in Columbus, Ohio. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. To read more on what he has to say about GAD, read his article titled “An Alternative Theory of Generalized Anxiety Disorder” published online on Psychology Today.