What is the difference between normal anxiety and GAD?

Ethan Cullen
Author: Ethan Cullen Medical Reviewer: Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD Last updated:

Normal anxiety is the feelings of worry and dread that everyone experiences in certain stressful situations. Normal anxiety is a completely natural response and ends when the trigger is removed. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a persistent disorder that can affect your quality of life for months, if not years. It seriously interferes with day-to-day life. [1]

What is normal anxiety?

Normal anxiety is a natural response to some stressful situation or trigger. It may cause you to feel shaky, sweat more, or become short of breath. Usually, people will avoid situations they know may trigger anxiety. [2]

Examples of common triggers include:

  • Pressure at work or risk of unemployment
  • Financial struggles
  • Problems in your relationship
  • An ill family member
  • Being late for work or an appointment
  • Meeting someone new

Normal anxiety is something everyone will experience, but it is a rational response to a trigger or situation. Normal anxiety should go away when the situation is resolved. For example, you might be anxious about a medical test, but that anxiety goes away once it comes back clear.

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder is when everyday events constantly cause worry, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. Generalized anxiety disorder is not a natural response to common triggers; it is a constant response that can affect people for months, or even years. [3]

Symptoms of GAD can include: [1]

  • Worrying about everyday events that wouldn’t normally trigger feelings of anxiety
  • Having trouble relaxing or constantly feeling on-edge
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor quality sleep and difficulty falling asleep
  • Feeling tired
  • Unexplained muscle aches and headaches
  • Tremble or twitching
  • Excessive sweating
  • Needing to go to the frequently

Children and adults can experience different symptoms. Adults may worry more about their job, children, household tasks, and financial situation. Children and teenagers are more likely to worry about academic performance, their family members, and natural disasters.

Generalized anxiety disorder does not always need a trigger; however, situations that people usually find stressful and anxiety inducing may be even worse for someone with GAD, as they are less likely to rationalize their feelings and recognize when they need help.

Generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis

The DSM-5 sets out the following diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder:

  • Excessive anxiety and worrying for at least 6 months
  • The anxiety causes problems in daily life including work and social life.
  • The anxiety is not due to any other identifiable condition or disorder.
  • You experience at least 3 of these symptoms for at least 6 months:n
    • Feeling overly tired for no apparent reason
    • Muscle tension
    • Poor quality sleep
    • Agitation and feeling on-edge
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Restlessness

Do I have normal anxiety or GAD?

So, how can you differentiate between normal anxiety vs. GAD? Consider the following:

  • Normal anxiety is linked to a stressful situation or life event whilst generalizedanxiety disorder does not need a specific trigger.
  • Generalizedanxiety disorder may cause you to experience symptoms about a situation that people would normally not find stressful.
  • Normal anxiety symptoms go away once the stressor has ended or been resolved. Generalizedanxiety disorder can last for months or years.
  • Normal anxiety is related to a specific stressor and does not cause many problems in day-to-day life compared to generalizedanxiety disorder.
  • Symptoms of generalizedanxiety disorder are more difficult to control and can consume a person’s life. Normal anxiety symptoms are usually managed without the need for medication or professional psychiatric help.

If you have ongoing anxiety that appears excessive and does not resolve once a stressor or triggering situation has passed, you likely have GAD, rather than normal anxiety. Furthermore, GAD is suspected when anxiety is so significant that it interferes with important areas of life, such as being successful at a job.

How to treat generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder can be treated with both therapeutic methods and medication. It is often treated through a combination of the two. [3]

Some common treatments for GAD include:

  • Cognitive BehavioralTherapy (CBT)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Antidepressantmedication
  • Anti-anxiety medication
  • Self-help or support groups
  • Healthy habits such as reducing caffeine intake and a regular sleep schedule [1]
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. (2022). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
  2. NHS UK. (n.d). Feeling anxious? Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/anxiety/
  3. Munir S., & Takov, V. (2022). Generalized anxiety disorder. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441870/
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Ethan Cullen
Author Ethan Cullen Writer

Ethan Cullen is a medical writer with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford University.

Published: Jan 13th 2023, Last edited: Mar 5th 2024

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD
Medical Reviewer Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD LSW, MSW

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD is a medical reviewer, licensed social worker, and behavioral health consultant, holding a PhD in clinical psychology.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Jan 13th 2023