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What is the Difference Between Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 9/17/2010

Panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder do have a small number of similarities, but they are very different disorders. If you are wondering, "what is the difference between panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder?" this article will provide the answer to your question.

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    About Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

    Someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) has chronic anxiety, and a tendency to become over-anxious about issues which would not normally cause concern. Panic disorder is characterized by repeated episodes of panic attacks, in which the individual is overcome by feelings of fear and dread.

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    What is the Difference Between Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

    Both panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are classed as anxiety disorders; despite this, they have very different symptoms, and also tend to differ in causes and treatment.

    The main differences between these two disorders are in the following categories:

    • Symptoms
    • Causes
    • Treatment
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    Symptoms

    When answering the question, "what is the difference between panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder?" a discussion of the symptoms is first on this list, as these differences are easily the most striking. The primary difference is that GAD symptoms are mainly anxiety-based, while the main characteristic of panic disorder is panic attacks. People with GAD tend not to have a large number of panic attacks, but they might experience occasional attacks.

    People with GAD tend to have chronic worries and concerns about things that are unlikely to happen; for example someone with this disorder might worry constantly about the possibility of being in a traffic accident. People with GAD also often worry excessively even over largely inconsequential matters, and tend to automatically think the worst when something goes wrong or happens unexpectedly. Chronic physical symptoms such as muscle tension and aches, headaches, fatigue, trembling and twitching, irritability, difficulty swallowing, and the feeling of a lump in the throat, are common.

    Panic disorder is classed as an anxiety disorder because people with this condition have significant anxiety. In contrast to GAD, however, the anxiety experienced by people with panic disorder is specifically related to their panic attacks. A panic attack is a short, intense episode in which the individual has overwhelming feelings of dread and fear, which might or might not be related to a specific situation. Physical symptoms such as dizziness, sweating, chills, nausea, trembling and shaking, abdominal cramps, throat tightness, shortness of breath, numbness in extremities, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, and chest pain, are commonly experienced during a panic attack.

    The attacks are associated with significant anxiety, as someone with this disorder will become anxious about when and where attacks might occur, and might begin avoiding certain locations and situations to try and avoid triggering another attack.

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    Causes

    In both panic disorder and GAD, the specific causes and triggers of the conditions are not completely understood. Known risk factors for both disorders include genetic and environmental factors, and the nature of stressors.

    In the case of panic disorder, some researchers believe that the body's "fight or flight" response is involved. This response describes how the body reacts to life-threatening situations by providing a sudden surge of energy to aid in escape. In some people, it is thought that the flight or flight response is incorrectly triggered, causing the symptoms of a panic attack. The reason why this inappropriate triggering might occur is not well understood; it might be related to genetic causes which make some people more susceptible than others to certain neurochemicals and hormones.

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    Treatment

    Generalized anxiety disorder is generally treated with a combination of drugs such as SSRI antidepressants and antianxiety medications, with the possibility of benzodiazipines for short term use, and psychotherapy. Talk therapy for this disorder involves talking about stressors and how to cope with them in healthier ways, while cognitive therapy involves pinpointing specific thoughts that provoke anxiety reactions, and working to replace those thoughts with alternatives that don't cause anxiety.

    Medication and psychotherapy are also the standard treatment for panic disorder, but different medications and types of therapy are used to treat this condition.

    Medications for panic disorder include SSRI, SNRI, tricyclic, and MAOI antidepressants. Benzodiazipines might be prescribed for short term use. Psychotherapy might include cognitive therapy, exposure therapy in which the person mimics panic attack symptoms in a controlled environment, or another type of therapy called psychodynamic therapy. In this type of therapy, the person learns how to pick up on his or her unconscious thoughts as a means of understanding internal emotions, and preventing panic attacks before they start.

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    References

    Mental Health Help Guide: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

    Mental Health Help Guide: Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

    The Mayo Clinic: Generalized Anxiety Disorder

    The Mayo Clinic: Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

    U.S. National Institute of Mental Health: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

    U.S. National Institute of Mental Health: Panic Disorder