Generalized Anxiety Disorder vs Panic Disorder: How to Tell the Difference

Generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder come from the same ‘family’ of mental health conditions. Despite this, they are two separate disorders that often share similar symptoms and physiological features. If you connect with the symptoms mentioned in this article, it is important to seek effective help and proper care from a trained professional.

Difference between Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Panic Disorder vs. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder have similar symptoms but can often be mistaken for each other if not properly diagnosed and treated. These symptoms and reasons for mistaken disorders are few, but nonetheless, very important.

What is GAD?

Often, generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is coupled with excessive worry, intrusive thoughts, and extended periods of feeling nervous or on edge (APA, 2013). Often, individuals suffering from generalized anxiety fear something ‘bad’ happening to others or themselves. They may read into things, have racing thoughts, and have physical symptoms may occur. These physical symptoms may be chest pain, increased heart rate, stomach aches, shakiness, and inability to focus. Other characteristics of GAD may include fatigue, trouble sleeping, and irritability (Himani, 2022). Panic attacks may also accompany generalized anxiety but are not the most common symptom. Anxiety attacks are standard, less severe versions of panic attacks often showcasing similar symptoms.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is characterized by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks that may have many different symptoms including heart racing, fear that you are dying, and fear that you are going “crazy” among several others (APA, 2013). These panic attacks are normally coupled with either fear of having another panic attack, changing your lifestyle dramatically to avoid feelings related to panic, or both. Panic attacks occur without warning and usually reach peak amounts of fear within minutes. Panic disorder may also include symptoms like depersonalization or derealization and numbness or tingling in parts of the body (Himani, 2022 & APA, 2013).

Why is it challenging to determine whether someone has GAD, panic disorder, or is experiencing both conditions?

It may be very difficult to determine whether someone has GAD, panic disorder, or both because of the similarity of symptoms. A generalized anxiety disorder may feature panic attacks due to other fears related to a person’s specific fears. Panic disorder often characterizes symptoms of anxiety after the onset of a single panic attack. The main difference between the two may be the fact that panic disorder consists of 1 month of recurrent panic attacks that seemingly have no trigger or cause. This differs from GAD because many individuals with generalized anxiety are aware of certain fears or worries, they may possess. Someone experiencing both conditions may suffer from more frequent panic attacks that are linked to panic but may also have daily worries that attribute to chronic panic attacks.

GAD Vs Panic Disorder

GAD Symptoms VS Panic Disorder Symptoms

How does panic disorder differ from generalized anxiety disorder?

The difference between panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are many. While they carry many of the same symptoms, the symptoms for panic disorder are often more intense and shorter-lived rather than generalized anxiety being more chronic.

Worrying after a panic attack is more common with panic disorder than with generalized anxiety disorder. This is because many individuals fear having another panic attack and will do anything they can to prevent it from happening. Generalized anxiety is more often attributed to everyday worry that can amount to panic. Here are some other symptoms to help distinguish panic disorder vs generalized anxiety:

Panic Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Recurring panic attacks
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Excessively worrying about panic attacks occurring again
  • Drastically changing your lifestyle to avoid having symptoms of panic (avoid working out, certain people or places where panic has occurred)
  • Derealization, depersonalization
  • Excessive worry over everyday life events
  • Intrusive thoughts that interfere with daily functioning
  • Sleep troubles, tension, fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Digestive issues (stomach aches, bowel problems)

Similarities Between Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Many of the physical symptoms of panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are similar and mainly differ with duration, frequency, and intensity (Ankrom, 2020). The following are several common physical and psychological symptoms of panic and anxiety.

  • Fear or worry: excessive fear or worry about certain things may cause severe distress for some individuals
  • Heart palpitations: feeling like your heart skips a beat from sudden fear or intense worry
  • Increased heart rate: nervousness, worry, or fear may increase heart rate and cause shortness of breath
  • Chest pain: increased heart rate or tension within muscles can cause chest pain
  • Panic attacks or anxiety attacks: ranging from mild to severe, attacks from anxiety or panic can be symptoms of either PD or GAD

 Can panic disorder be misdiagnosed as GAD and vice versa?

The short answer is yes, panic disorder can be misdiagnosed as GAD and vice versa. Depending on presenting symptoms, individuals may show signs of both making it difficult to decipher which may be the root cause of presenting problems. Panic attacks can be symptoms of generalized anxiety, and excessive worry can be a trait of panic disorder. With many overlapping or similar symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose one or the other with complete confidence.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Vs Panic Disorder

Can you have GAD and panic disorder at the same time?

It is possible to have GAD and panic disorder at the same time, and typically, individuals with PD and GAD often have more severe symptoms and may not respond as well to psychological treatment without medication. People who have experienced trauma, have anxiety in their family, or those who abuse substances are more likely to have comorbid anxiety disorders such as GAD and PD.

Finding a Professional and Getting Properly Diagnosed

An individual who experiences any symptoms such as panic, excessive worry, intrusive thoughts, or sudden changes in behavior may benefit from professional mental health help. Treatment of GAD vs panic disorder can be very different depending on what diagnosis is prominent. This is why it is important to understand and determine which diagnosis is the correct one. Treatment may take longer or be ineffective if an incorrect diagnosis is made.