What's the Difference Between Panic Disorder and GAD?

Panic disorder vs generalized anxiety disorder.
Panic disorder and GAD are both characterized by excessive worry and anxiety. Photo © Microsoft

While panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) share some common distressing symptoms, like excessive worry, they are two separate and distinct mental health conditions. 

Let's explore the differences between panic disorder versus GAD in more detail. Gaining knowledge about these two common mental health conditions may be the first step to helping yourself or a loved one. 

Understanding Panic Disorder

Recurring panic attacks is the hallmark feature of panic disorder.

These panic attacks are wrought with sudden and intense feelings of terror, fear, or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger.

In addition, these feelings are often accompanied by numerous uncomfortable physical sensations like:

  • Chest pain
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Palpitations (for example, "skipped heartbeats" or an accelerated heart rate)
  • Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Numbness and tingling sensations
  • Feeling of choking

These physical symptoms are typically met with disturbing thoughts and fears. For example, a person may become confused, fearful of going insane, or even feel detached from reality or themselves. 

The symptoms of a panic attack usually happen suddenly, peak within 10 minutes and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.

Furthermore, panic disorder often causes excessive worry about having another panic attack, creating a vicious cycle.

In fact, it's not unusual for a person to become so consumed with worry and fear that he or she develops behavioral changes in the hopes of avoiding another attack.

This may lead to the development of agoraphobia, in which a person avoids environments or situations where he or she fears a panic attack may arise.

Agoraphobia can significantly complicate recovery and limits one’s ability to function in usual daily activities.

Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

The main feature of  GAD is excessive and pervasive worry about many everyday life events. This worry is difficult to control, and the person finds her worrisome thoughts to be unmanageable.

More specifically, in order to be diagnosed with GAD, worry and anxiety must persist for more than six months and interfere with daily functioning. In other words, for a person with GAD, the worry and anxiety may take over, making it difficult for the person to complete job tasks, maintain healthy relationships, and take care of oneself. 

The focus of worry in GAD generally surrounds many usual life circumstances, unlike that in panic disorder, which focuses on when the next panic attack will occur. For example, people with GAD have excessive worry about finances, job issues, children, health, and other everyday life events.

With GAD, a person may have physical symptoms, but they differ from those with panic disorder. Common examples of these physical symptoms include:

  • Sleep problems (for example, difficulty falling or staying asleep)
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Digestive issues like diarrhea or stomach discomfort
  • Chronic headaches

Coexistence of Panic Disorder, GAD, and Other Mental Health Conditions

It should be noted that it's possible to have both panic disorder and GAD. In addition, it's not uncommon for panic disorder and GAD to co-occur with mood disorders like major depressive disorder, other anxiety disorders like social phobia, or substance abuse disorder.

Further complicating the picture is that medical conditions may mimic the symptoms of GAD or panic disorder, such as an overactive thyroid (called hyperthyroidism), heart disease, lung disease, or neurological diseases like stroke.

This is why it's important to seek out care from a healthcare professional, so you can ensure a proper evaluation and diagnosis.

A Word From Verywell

The symptoms of panic disorder and GAD can be disabling, affecting both quality of life and a person's everyday functioning.

But the good news is that with professional treatment, the vast majority of people with panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can obtain significant relief from their symptoms—and the earlier the diagnosis made and treatment begins, the better, according to a study in JAMA.

With that, if you have symptoms of panic disorder, GAD, or both, talk to your doctor or another healthcare provider. Sometimes getting started and reaching out is the hardest step, but you can do it. 

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.," 2013 Washington, DC: Author.

Locke AB, Kirst N, Shultz CG. Diagnosis and management of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2015 May 1;91(9):617-24.

Stein MB, Craske MG. Treating anxiety in 2017: Optimizing care to improve outcomes. JAMA. 2017 Jul 18;318(3):235-36.

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