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GAD and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder


Updated October 03, 2008

People who have experienced something traumatic in their lives often have some experience of anxiety in response, and many can become confused about whether they are experiencing a normal response or may be developing an anxiety problem.

If latter, what disorder do they have? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are possibilities, and there is common misunderstanding about the difference between the two.


The major markers of GAD are significant, persistent, and uncontrollable anxiety and worry about a wide range of situations and things in life. People with GAD may be identified by their friends as “anxious people” or “worriers.” Additionally, people with GAD experience physical symptoms of anxiety (muscle tension, headaches, etc.), difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and irritability/tenseness.


The major markers of PTSD are the experience of some symptoms in response to a traumatic event or experience. These symptoms come from three clusters:

Re-experiencing: Symptoms such as flashbacks, physiological responses similar to those during the trauma, and feelings of distress while reminded of the event

Avoidance: Symptoms such as avoiding discussions or thoughts about the event, difficulty remember details of the event, and feeling distant from others

Hyperarousal: Symptoms such as difficulty with sleep, bursts of anger, and feeling on guard

Telling the Difference Between the Two

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 is often limited to the event. People can have both disorders, and 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.


American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IV-TR).

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