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Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
It’s normal to feel overly anxious, worried or uncomfortable from time to time, especially before a big decision or important event. However, for some people, anxiety is a common feeling that can become overwhelming and even harmful.
Anxiety disorders are common. In fact, according to the National Comorbidity Study Replication, an estimated 23.4 percent of all adult women in the United States deal with an anxiety disorder every year, with 31.1 percent of all US adults affected at some point in their lives.
Panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder have several symptoms in common, but they’re also distinct, unique disorders that often require different forms of treatment.
Below, we’ve explained what panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are, as well as the specific symptoms you may notice if you have either form of anxiety.
We’ve also explained how panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are often treated with anti-anxiety medications, psychotherapy and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that can involve frequent, intense and overwhelming panic attacks. These attacks may occur unexpectedly, without any clear signs that the affected person should feel alarmed or uncomfortable.
If you have panic disorder, you may experience panic attacks from time to time. You might also feel uncomfortable or concerned about unexpected panic attacks that could occur in the future, even when there’s no obvious trigger or other reason for you to feel concerned.
During a panic attack, you may experience a sudden wave of intense fear and a loss of some degree of control over your feelings and emotions. Panic attacks can involve severe physical symptoms, which may develop in response to your feelings and worries.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
Severe, sudden feelings of overwhelming fear and/or anxiety
A sense that you no longer have control over your mind and/or body
Chills, sweating, difficulty breathing and a faster-than-normal heart rate
Weakness, dizziness, numbness, tingling and other physical symptoms
Stomach pain, chest pain and feelings of nausea
After experiencing a panic attack, you may develop intense worries about when your next panic attack may occur. These concerns may affect your mental well-being and make it harder for you to relax and enjoy certain aspects of your life.
Experts aren’t completely aware of why or how panic disorder develops, but experts believe that it’s likely related to your body’s physical and mental survival instincts being triggered as part of a “false alarm” in certain situations.
Research suggests that certain biological and environmental factors, such as your genetics and everyday stress level, may also be involved in panic disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that involves persistent, frequent and sometimes severe feelings of anxiety, excessive worry or dread.
If you have generalized anxiety disorder, you may worry excessively about everyday things and find it difficult to relax. These worries may continue even if there’s no obvious reason for you to feel anxious or overwhelmed.
Feelings of worry and anxiety can often revolve around your health, career, finances, family and certain tasks that you need to do throughout the day.
In addition to persistent feelings of worry and anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder can involve other symptoms. Common symptoms of GAD include:
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Finding it difficult to concentrate on tasks
Persistent feelings of tiredness and fatigue
Feelings of nervousness that you find difficult to control
Being aware that you worry more than you need to
Finding it difficult to swallow foods and liquids
Trembling, twitching and startling easily
Needing to go to the bathroom frequently
Headaches, cramps and other pains
Shortness of breath or feeling lightheaded
It’s common for the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder to change in severity based on events in your life. You may feel more severe symptoms during stressful times, such as when you’re overwhelmed by a busy work schedule or physically unwell.
Experts believe that generalized anxiety disorder can be caused by genetic and environmental factors, including your family history of anxiety disorders, stressful environments and exposure to traumatic events.
Panic disorder is treatable, usually with a mix of therapy, medication and small changes to your habits and lifestyle.
If you think you may have panic disorder, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider. You can access help by letting your primary care provider know about your concerns, or by meeting with a mental health provider in your area.
You can also take part in a consultation with a licensed psychiatry provider from your home with our online psychiatry service.
Depending on your symptoms and needs, your provider may recommend taking part in therapy, using medication or a combination of different treatment methods.
Several different types of therapy are used to treat panic disorder, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy involves changing the ways you think, behave and react to your emotions, including those that develop before or during panic attacks.
By changing the way you think, you may reduce the severity of your panic symptoms and make your panic attacks less commonplace.
Panic disorder is also treated with medications, including antidepressants, benzodiazepines and beta-blockers. Each type of medication offers certain advantages, as well as some drawbacks:
Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can often help to reduce the severity of panic attack symptoms. However, they can take several weeks to start working and may cause adverse effects.
SSRIs that are approved to treat panic disorder include fluoxetine (Prozac®), sertraline (Zoloft®) and paroxetine (Paxil®).
Benzodiazepines can provide rapid relief from panic attacks and other common anxiety symptoms. However, many people develop a tolerance to these medications, and some users become dependent on them over time.
If you’re prescribed a benzodiazepine, your healthcare provider may suggest only using it for a short period of time.
Beta-blockers can provide relief from some physical symptoms you experience during a panic attack, such as shaking, sweating or a rapid heart rate. However, medications of this type generally don’t provide relief from the mental symptoms of panic disorder.
Your healthcare provider may suggest using a beta-blocker if you need help in situations that may cause you to panic.
Used effectively, medications may help to improve your results from therapy and give you more control over yourself in situations that cause panic. However, both medications and therapy can require time to work, meaning it may take several weeks before you notice improvements.
Make sure to closely follow your mental health provider’s advice and let them know if you don’t feel any improvements after taking part in therapy and using medication for several weeks.
Making simple but meaningful changes to your habits and daily life can potentially make panic disorder easier to deal with. Try to:
Talk to someone you trust about your symptoms and feelings. This usually means reaching out to a close friend or family member. Let them know how you’re feeling and, should they want to help, tell them what they can do to make things easier for you.
Limit your intake of caffeine and other stimulants. Caffeine intake is associated with an increased risk of panic disorder. Try to limit your consumption of caffeine, especially if you feel like you’re more anxious after drinking caffeinated beverages.
Like panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder is usually treated with medication, therapy and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
In order to diagnose generalized anxiety disorder, your mental health provider may talk with you about your symptoms, your medical history, any underlying conditions you have and any recent stressful or traumatic life events you have experienced.
They may also ask you about topics such as substance abuse or your past experience with any mental health conditions.
To check for physical factors that may cause anxiety, you may need to complete one or several of the following tests:
Blood glucose level test
Thyroid function tests
To treat generalized anxiety disorder, your mental health provider may recommend taking part in cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or a combination of different types of psychotherapy.
Acceptance and commitment therapy involves the use of goal setting and mindfulness to help you deal with feelings of anxiety.
You may also be prescribed medication to help you gain control over your anxiety symptoms, such as an antidepressant, benzodiazepine or beta-blocker. Your mental health provider may suggest using buspirone, an anxiety medication that’s less likely to cause dependence.
Our guide to medications for treating anxiety provides more information about the medications your healthcare provider may prescribe if you have generalized anxiety disorder.
Like with panic disorder, many symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder become less severe with simple changes to your habits and everyday life. Try to:
Educate yourself about generalized anxiety disorder. Try to learn as much as you can about the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, as well as the most effective treatment options. Being informed can help you to take action and make progress.
Ask a friend or family member for help and support. If you feel like you need to talk to someone, consider reaching out to a close friend or family member to let them know about your anxiety and see if they can help you.
Identify your anxiety triggers, then take steps to limit their effects on you. Anxiety is often triggered by a specific substance, setting or event, such as nicotine, alcohol or an environment that makes you feel as if you’re under pressure.
Try to identify the things that cause you to feel anxious, then adjust your habits so that they’re easier for you to avoid or deal with.
Work on maintaining healthy sleep habits. Research shows a clear link between lack of sleep and anxiety. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night — the minimum amount recommended by the CDC for people 18 and older.
In addition to panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, there are several other common anxiety disorders. Many of these disorders share common symptoms with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Other types of anxiety disorders include:
Social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder involves intense feelings of fear and worry about being judged by other people. It typically happens in social situations, such as school classes, work environments and public events.
Many people experience performance anxiety — a form of social anxiety that can occur during speeches, public performances and other forms of social interaction.
Separation anxiety disorder. This type of anxiety disorder involves feelings of fear and concern about being separated from a loved one, usually a partner, parent or other close people.
Specific phobias. Phobias are anxiety disorders that involve feelings of fear and anxiety about a specific object or situation. Common phobias include fears about flying, coming into contact with dangerous or scary animals or seeing blood.
Our full guide to anxiety disorders goes into more detail about these conditions, their symptoms and your options for treating and managing anxiety.
Panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are common mental disorders that affect tens of millions of US adults on an annual basis. Both conditions can be treated, allowing you to control your symptoms and enjoy a higher quality of life.
If you’re concerned that you might have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or a related mental health disorder, it’s important to talk to a mental health professional.
You can access expert help by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, or by using our online mental health services. We offer a complete range of services, including the ability to take part in a psychiatric consultation or access online therapy from your home.
You can also learn more about successfully coping with anxiety, stress, panic and other mental health concerns using our free online mental health resources.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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