Difficulty concentrating in generalized anxiety disorder: An evaluation of incremental utility and relationship to worry

J Anxiety Disord. 2018 Jan;53:39-45. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2017.10.007. Epub 2017 Nov 4.


Difficulty concentrating is one of the most common diagnostic criteria across DSM-5 categories, especially within the emotional (mood- and anxiety-related) disorders. A substantial literature has characterized cognitive functioning in emotional disorders using objective (behavioral) computerized cognitive tasks. However, diagnoses are typically formed on the basis of subjective (self-reported; clinician-rated) assessments of symptoms, and little is known about difficulty concentrating as a symptom. These questions are particularly important for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which has long been the subject of nosological debates, and for which several theoretical models that suggest a central role for cognitive impairments (including difficulty concentrating) in the maintenance of psychopathology have been proposed. The present study evaluated the incremental utility of difficulty concentrating and its relationship to worry and other symptoms in 175 GAD-diagnosed adults. Clinician-assessed difficulty concentrating incrementally predicted clinician-rated GAD, anxiety, and depression severity even after other GAD symptoms were controlled. Consistent with theoretical models of GAD that propose a direct relationship between worry and cognitive impairment, difficulty concentrating mediated the relationship between trait worry and clinical severity. These findings suggest that difficulty concentrating has value as a diagnostic criterion and is a potential mechanism by which worry increases distress and impairment.

Keywords: Attention; Cognitive control; Difficulty concentrating; Generalized anxiety disorder; Nosology; Worry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / complications*
  • Anxiety / diagnosis
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Anxiety Disorders / complications*
  • Anxiety Disorders / diagnosis
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / complications*
  • Depressive Disorder / complications
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychopathology
  • Self Report
  • Young Adult