The Difference Between Panic Disorder and GAD

Though similar, these disorders are distinct

woman looking panicked

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While panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) share some common symptoms, such as excessive worrying, they are two separate and distinct mental health conditions. Gaining knowledge about these two common mental health conditions may be the first step to helping yourself or a loved one.

Characteristics of Panic Disorder

Recurring panic attacks is the key diagnostic criteria of panic disorder. These panic attacks are wrought with 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, including:

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.

Panic disorder often causes excessive worry about having another panic attack, creating a vicious cycle. It's not unusual for a person with panic disorder to become so consumed with worry and fear that they develop behavioral changes, such as agoraphobia, where they avoid environments or situations where they fear a panic attack may arise.

Characteristics of GAD

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

In order to be diagnosed with GAD, worry and anxiety must persist for more than six months and interfere with daily functioning. For a person with GAD, their worry and anxiety may take over, making it difficult for them to complete job tasks, maintain healthy relationships, and take care of themselves. 

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

The focus of worry in GAD generally surrounds usual life circumstances—finances, job issues, children, health—unlike in panic disorder, when worry occurs spontaneously and/or focuses on when the next panic attack will occur.

Coexistence of Conditions

It is possible to have both panic disorder and GAD. It's also 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 such as an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), heart disease, lung disease, or neurological diseases like stroke may mimic the symptoms of a panic disorder or GAD.

This is why it's important to seek out care from a healthcare professional to ensure a proper evaluation and diagnosis, and to begin a course of treatment.

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 GAD can obtain significant relief from their symptoms. The earlier the diagnosis made and treatment begins, the better.

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'll be happy that you did. 

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Article Sources
  • American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.," 2013 Washington, DC: Author.
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  • Stein MB, Craske MG. Treating anxiety in 2017: Optimizing care to improve outcomes. JAMA. 2017 Jul 18;318(3):235-36.