The Difference Between GAD and Adjustment Disorder

Anxious-looking man in a crowd on the street
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People experiencing significant anxiety related to changing circumstances in their lives may be confused about whether they are simply having a normal reaction to the change or are experiencing the beginning of an anxiety problem like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). To complicate things further, GAD is often confused with other mental health issues like adjustment disorder. Here's what you should know about the differences between generalized anxiety disorder and adjustment disorders.

What Is GAD? 

The major markers of GAD are significant, persistent, and uncontrollable anxiety and worry about a wide range of situations and things in life. Your anxiety will be pervasive and out of proportion to the circumstances—and can even be caused by nothing at all. You may feel that disaster is lurking around every corner. Your friends and family likely describe you as a "worrier" or "nervous."

For instance, if you have GAD, you may insist your loved ones call you when they get home. If they don't call you, you might assume they've been in a car accident. If you go shopping or out to eat, you might worry about your credit card being stolen or someone following you. Some people may find you to be irrational about how worried you are each day. 

GAD can make you feel literally sick. You might experience physical symptoms of anxiety such as:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Memory issues
  • Muscle tension
  • Stress

GAD can be extremely debilitating, limiting you from enjoying daily life and harming interpersonal relationships. ​

What Is Adjustment Disorder?

When people experience a major change in their life, they can respond in a variety of ways. Sometimes the stress of these changes causes a significant emotional or behavioral change that affects normal functioning.

When this is the case, the person may have an adjustment disorder, which is a set of symptoms that develop within three months of the change and can involve significant anxiety. Adjustment disorder with anxiety is often an onset of worry, nervousness, anxiety, and irritability that is likely related to a specific event.

Symptoms of adjustment disorder can include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent crying
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Trouble managing normal daily tasks
  • Withdrawing from friends or activities

Adjustment disorder is often triggered by traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. It can significantly impact your ability to handle your daily responsibilities and in some cases, it can cause thoughts of suicide or self-harm. 

How to Tell the Difference

For people with GAD, there is often a long and consistent history of having anxiety and worry about a variety of things. People with adjustment disorder, on the other hand, only experience their symptoms in times of stress or change.

People can, however, have both disorders, and GAD can be made worse by change and adjusting to new routines. People with adjustment disorder will often see a large reduction in their anxiety as they adapt to a life change, while anxiety is continual for those with GAD.

Regardless if you have GAD or adjustment disorder, it is important to know that treatment is available and recovery is possible. Seeing a trained therapist can help you manage your symptoms and learn coping skills to use in your everyday life. In some cases, a combination of therapy and anti-anxiety medications can help you regain control. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. Patra BN, Sarkar S. Adjustment disorder: Current diagnostic statusIndian J Psychol Med. 2013;35(1):4-9. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.112193

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition, 2013.