How to Identify Difference Between Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD?


depressed man holding head

By Alicia DiGiulio, M.A., MSEd. Therapist

The difference between Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD


If you have experienced something traumatic in your life, you may be confused about whether your response is normal and “to be expected” or if it could be something else.

Understanding the difference between General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is essential to identifying the best course of treatment for your needs. 

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder report significant, persistent and uncontrollable anxiety and worry about a wide range of situations and things in life. People with GAD are often identified by their family members and friends as “anxious people” or “worriers.”

Also, people with GAD may experience physical symptoms of anxiety such as muscle tensions or headaches, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and irritability. Sometimes a person’s response towards whatever is making him or her anxious can appear irrational or out of proportion. 

GAD is differentiated from other anxiety disorders in that the symptoms of GAD must be present for at least six months before a diagnosis of the disorder can be made.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that sometimes occurs after individual witnesses a traumatic event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury to self or others. In response to the event, the person feels scared, hopeless, or horrified, and re-experiences the trauma for at least one month following the event. Individuals suffering from PTSD might re-experience the trauma in the following three ways:

  1. Re-experiencing: Symptoms include flashbacks, physiological responses similar to those experienced during the trauma, and feelings of distress when reminded of the event
  2. Avoidance: Symptoms include avoiding discussions or thoughts about the event, difficulty remember details of the event, and feeling distant from others
  3. Hyperarousal: Symptoms include difficulty with sleep, bursts of anger, and feeling on edge

Those suffering from PTSD may avoid places, activities, and people that remind them of the trauma. They lose interest in things they once cared about and often remain detached from others with blunted emotions.

The Key Differences

The key difference between GAD and PTSD is in how the disorder comes about. People with GAD often have a long and consistent history of anxiety across a wide variety of circumstances and situations. People with PTSD, on the other hand, often find an intense experience of anxiety and related symptoms in response to a major life event. Although there can be some generalizing to other situations, the experience with PTSD is often limited to the event.

It is possible for a person to have both Generalized Anxiety Disorder as well as PTSD.  A traumatic event can make the anxiety associated with GAD more severe, so it's important to visit a professional for an official diagnosis so the right treatment can begin.

Help for GAD or PTSD

While each disorder can severely impact your life, it's important to know that they can both be treated with therapy or medication, or a combination of both. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of either GAD or PTSD, we can help, Contact Crosswinds.

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