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How Do Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder Differ?

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Updated December 04, 2013

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD) share many similarities but differ in one important way: If you suffer with GAD, your worry tends to be broad and not limited to particular situations or circumstances. On the other hand, if you have SAD, the symptoms you feel are always related in some way to social or performance situations in which you expect scrutiny or evaluation by others.

If you have GAD, you will experience:

  • an unhealthy tendency to worry about a variety of things (e.g., work, family, money, health)
     
  • a tendency to anticipate the worst and to worry over trivial matters
     
  • the inability to control your worry
     
  • physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, restlessness, muscle tension and trouble sleeping
     
  • behavioral symptoms, such as irritability

When you suffer with SAD, you will share characteristics, such as a tendency to worry and anticipate the worst, an inability to control anxiety and trouble sleeping, with GAD. Your anxiety, however, is always triggered by social and performance situations. In addition, you know that your anxiety is irrational and out of proportion to the event that triggers it.

When you suffer with GAD, you may fear embarrassment in front of others, but it is not your main focus. As an example, consider a professional athlete with each of these disorders: The athlete with GAD may worry excessively about his ability to compete and provide for his family as well as his physical health -- in this way, his anxiety is very broad in scope. On the other hand, the athlete with SAD will also worry excessively, but the worry will be focused on the anticipation of these competitions, where he will be evaluated.

If you believe that you may suffer with GAD or SAD, talk with your doctor about the symptoms that you are experiencing. Ideally, you should receive a referral to a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author; 1994.

Hales RE, Yudofsky SC, eds. The American psychiatry publishing textbook of clinical psychiatry. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric; 2003.

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