Panic Disorder vs. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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

Panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder GAD are both considered mental health conditions that can greatly impact a person's quality of life. Both conditions are identified as anxiety-related illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM 5) - the handbook used by mental health providers to determine a diagnosis. Although they share some common symptoms, including excessive worry, they are two separate and distinct illnesses.

Read ahead to learn more about the differences between being diagnosed with panic disorder versus GAD. 

Panic Disorder

Recurring panic attacks are the hallmark features of panic disorder. Panic attacks are sudden and intense feelings of terror, fear or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger. These feelings are often accompanied by numerous uncomfortable physical sensations. Some of the common somatic symptoms of panic attacks include chest pain, trembling and shaking, accelerate heart rate, hyperventilation or shortness of breath, and excessive sweating. 

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

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. In order to be considered GAD, worry and anxiety must persist for more than 6 months and interferes with daily functioning.

For example, people with GAD find it difficult to concentrate and to simply feel "okay." The worry and anxiety can take over, making it difficult for the person to complete job tasks, maintain healthy relationships, and take care of oneself. 

The Focus of Worry

Panic disorder often causes excessive worry about having another panic attack. It is not unusual for one 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, which complicates recovery and limits one’s ability to function in usual daily activities.

The focus of worry in GAD generally surrounds many usual life circumstances. For example, excessive worry about finances, job issues, children, and other everyday life events is associated with GAD. This is in contrast to the worry of having a panic attack that is associated with panic disorder.

It should be noted that it is possible to have both panic disorder and GAD. In fact, it is not uncommon for GAD to co-occur with mood disorders or other anxiety disorders. But, in order for a distinct diagnosis of GAD to be made, excessive and pervasive worry about many everyday life events that persists for more than 6 months must be present.

The Importance of Getting Help

The symptoms of panic disorder and GAD can be potentially disabling. But, the vast majority of sufferers will find significant relief with treatment. The sooner treatment begins after the onset of symptoms, the more quickly symptom reduction or elimination will be realized. If you have symptoms of panic disorder, GAD or both, talk to your doctor or another healthcare provider.


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

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