The Difference Between Normal Anxiety and GAD

Woman speaking to a crowd

Hero Images / Getty Images

Differentiating between normal anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can be tricky. How do you know, especially if you are a little more anxious than others, whether or not your anxiety is significant enough to qualify as a disorder?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Many people feel anxious from time to time, especially during times of stress. However, when you worry excessively, so much so that it interferes with day-to-day activities, you might have GAD.

Some people develop GAD as a child while others do not see symptoms until they are an adult. Either way, living with GAD can last a long time. In many cases, it occurs along with other anxiety or mood disorders.

GAD is around twice as common in women as in men. Because anxiety affects women at a greater rate, experts recommend routine anxiety screening for women and girls aged 13 and older.

Anxiety can grow worse over time and have a serious impact on a person's ability to function normally, which is why treatment is so important. In most cases, it improves with medications or ​talk therapy (psychotherapy). Making lifestyle changes, learning coping skills, and using relaxation techniques also can help.

Symptoms

GAD symptoms can include:

  • Persistent worrying or obsession with small or large concerns that's out of proportion to the impact of the event
  • Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
  • Inability to relax, restlessness, and feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind "goes blank"
  • Worrying about excessively worrying
  • Distress about making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision
  • Carrying every option in a situation all the way out to its possible negative conclusion
  • Difficulty handling uncertainty or indecisiveness

Physical signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension or muscle aches
  • Trembling, feeling twitchy
  • Being easily startled
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Headaches
  • Memory problems

Do You Have an Anxiety Disorder?

The following is a brief guide to determining whether generalized anxiety disorder may be something that you are struggling with.

1. Anxiety Is Severe

Although at times the anxiety that all people experience can be somewhat severe, a characteristic of GAD is that this anxiety is usually more intense and long-lasting. If you have more severe anxiety than most other people you know, then it may be more than normal anxiety.

2. Anxiety Is Disproportionate

The experience of anxiety for most people is proportionate to the intensity of the situation. For example, if there was a minor anxiety-provoking situation, then the experience of anxiety is typically minor as well. People with GAD tend to become more anxious than the situation appears to warrant. Therefore, if you are someone who has more severe anxiety over “things that shouldn’t be a big deal,” it may be more than normal anxiety.

3. You Are Anxious About Everything

When people experience normal anxiety they tend to worry about things related to the anxiety-provoking situation, or several other things that make them fearful. People with GAD tend to be described as "worrying about everything all the time.” If that describes you, it may be more than normal anxiety.

4. You Have No Control Over Anxiety

Most people can reduce and control their anxiety through a variety of coping techniques and the ability to calm oneself. However, people with GAD have significant difficulty finding relaxation, calm, and time away from their worries. If you have more difficulty than other people you know in controlling your anxiety, it may be more than normal anxiety.

If you or a loved one are struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, 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.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Anxiety Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Revised July 2018.

  2. Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: a recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580

  3. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Anxiety and Depression Association of America.