Toward Linguistic Recognition of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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Background: Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) refers to extreme, uncontrollable, and persistent worry and anxiety. The disorder is known to affect the social functioning and well-being of millions of people, but despite its prevalence and burden to society, it has proven difficult to identify unique behavioral markers. Interestingly, the worrying behavior observed in GAD is argued to stem from a verbal linguistic process. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to investigate if GAD can be predicted from the language people use to put their anxious worries into words. Given the importance of avoidance sensitivity (a higher likelihood to respond anxiously to novel or unexpected triggers) in GAD, this study also explored if prediction accuracy increases when individual differences in behavioral avoidance and approach sensitivity are taken into account.

Method: An expressive writing exercise was used to explore whether GAD can be predicted from linguistic characteristics of written narratives. Specifically, 144 undergraduate student participants were asked to recall an anxious experience during their university life, and describe this experience in written form. Clinically validated behavioral measures for GAD and self-reported sensitivity in behavioral avoidance/inhibition (BIS) and behavioral approach (BAS), were collected. A set of classification experiments was performed to evaluate GAD predictability based on linguistic features, BIS/BAS scores, and a concatenation of the two.

Results: The classification results show that GAD can, indeed, be successfully predicted from anxiety-focused written narratives. Prediction accuracy increased when differences in BIS and BAS were included, which suggests that, under those conditions, negatively valenced emotion words and words relating to social processes could be sufficient for recognition of GAD.

Conclusions: Undergraduate students with a high GAD score can be identified based on their written recollection of an anxious experience during university life. This insight is an important first step toward development of text-based digital health applications and technologies aimed at remote screening for GAD. Future work should investigate the extent to which these results uniquely apply to university campus populations or generalize to other demographics.
Original languageEnglish
Article number779039
Pages (from-to)1-13
JournalFrontiers in Digital Health
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • mental distress
  • emotion regulation
  • natural language processing


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