The difference between Normal Anxiety and GAD

The difference between Normal Anxiety and GAD

In general, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. In fact, it can be a good thing. Anxiety motivates you to accomplish your assignments, to study harder for a test and it can warn you when you’re in a dangerous situation. It informs you to be extra vigilant about your environment — to fight or flee. An anxiety disorder such as GAD, however, involves intense and excessive anxiety, along with other debilitating symptoms.

Differentiating between normal anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can be tricky. How do you know, especially if you are a little more anxious than others, whether or not your anxiety is significant enough to qualify as a disorder?

Normal Anxiety

According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)’s partner organization,, anxiety is a normal and often healthy emotion which is characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. When we face potentially harmful or worrying triggers, feelings of anxiety are not only normal but necessary for survival.

Since the earliest days of humanity, the approach of predators and incoming danger sets off alarms in the body and allows evasive action. These alarms become noticeable in the form of a raised heartbeat, sweating, and increased sensitivity to surroundings.

The danger causes a rush of adrenalin, a hormone and chemical messenger in the brain, which in turn triggers these anxious reactions in a process called the “fight-or-flight’ response. This prepares humans to physically confront or flee any potential threats to safety.

For many people, running from larger animals and imminent danger is a less pressing concern than it would have been for early humans. Anxieties now revolve around work, money, family life, health, and other crucial issues that demand a person’s attention without necessarily requiring the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.

The nervous feeling before an important life event or during a difficult situation is a natural echo of the original ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. It can still be essential to survival – anxiety about being hit by a car when crossing the street, for example, means that a person will instinctively look both ways to avoid danger.

The duration or severity of an anxious feeling can sometimes be out of proportion to the original trigger, or stressor. Physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and nausea, may also develop. These responses move beyond anxiety into GAD.

Generalized Anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities. People with symptoms of GAD tend to always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about health, money, family, work, or school. In people with GAD, the worry is often unrealistic or out of proportion for the situation. Daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear, and dread. Eventually, the anxiety so dominates the person’s thinking that it interferes with daily functioning, including work, school, social activities, and relationships.

Several Key Differences

  1. Stressor. Usually normal anxiety occurs in response to a stressor, such as an exam, an upcoming interview, a fight with a friend or a new job. When you struggle with GAD, you’re anxious almost or all of the time, yet there are times when you can’t spot the source of the stress. For instance, people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), can have a difficult time just getting through the day. Even seemingly small responsibilities, like paying the bills, make them feel anxious.
  2. Intensity and Length. GAD also produces intense and excessive emotional responses. Even if you’re reacting to a stressor, your anxiety is disproportionate to that stressor. Many people are on edge before an exam, but a person with GAD might be anxious several weeks beforehand and will experience intense symptoms right before and during the exam. Also, normal anxiety is fleeting, while GAD is ongoing, and the feelings can last weeks or months.
  3. Other symptoms. Excessive anxiety and worry aren’t the only symptoms that accompany GAD. There are other physical symptoms too; dizziness, light-headedness, sweating, trembling, heart pounding, headaches and nausea. You feel like you can’t breathe, can’t talk or have to go to the bathroom frequently. People with GAD also report feeling detachment or disconnected from reality. They feel like they can’t think straight and have difficulty concentrating. Other psychological symptoms are also present. Individuals experience racing or negative thoughts are unable to concentrate and have worries about day-to-day things.
  4. Impairment. When you struggle with GAD, it affects your entire life. It impairs or interferes with your schoolwork, job and daily life. Avoidance is a symptom of GAD and can be quite debilitating. In other words, the excessive anxiety can cause you to avoid normal activities. You might skip class, miss a test, stop going to work, procrastinate grocery shopping or avoid anything that makes you feel anxious.
  5. No Control. Most people can reduce and control their anxiety through a variety of coping techniques and the ability to calm oneself. However, people with GAD have significant difficulty finding relaxation, calm, and time away from their worries. If you have more difficulty than other people you know in controlling your anxiety, it may be more than normal anxiety.

If It’s Excessive Anxiety

If you’re struggling with overwhelming anxiety and you can relate to some of the above, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional and subsequent treatment.

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