What are the differences between phobias and generalized anxiety disorder?

Everyone has anxiety at some time or another. Whether it is from a stressful situation or the weight of everyday life – anxiety is a normal occurrence. Yet, there are differences between normal anxiety and GAD, or generalized anxiety disorder. If you’re not sure which you have or have concerns about anxiety disorders, here is a little information on the difference between normal anxiety and GAD. We will take a look at what makes up each, how they are treated, and what you can do to know more about the differences.

What Is Normal Anxiety?

We all experience anxiety in certain situations. These worrying triggers or stressors can range from worry over losing a job, finances, and what you’ll do if you can’t afford to pay the bills. That’s just a couple of examples though. There are plenty of everyday worries that trigger anxiety. You might be stuck in traffic and get anxious about the journey. You might be waiting on a medical test result and have anxiety over that. Even something as simple as thinking someone doesn’t like you or that someone said something about you can cause anxiety.

The important thing to know about normal anxiety is that it’s well…normal. This is something we all experience and it’s a natural thing. One of the major differences is that with normal anxiety, it usually disappears once the stressors are gone. For instance, if you are worried about a test in school and finally get your grade and it’s higher than you thought, that anxiety should subside. The problem that caused the anxiety in the first place is no longer there to cause you issues.

One thing to keep in mind is that this type of anxiety can be beneficial. Whether you study harder for a test or drive more carefully in a rainstorm – some anxiety works to protect us. And don’t forget that we all go through it. That first day of a new school or a new job, having a baby, speaking in public – these are all times that natural anxiety happens and is perfectly normal.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD or generalized anxiety disorder is different from the everyday symptoms of normal anxiety. These symptoms may include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Thinking about every possible bad conclusion to a problem
  • Obsessing or constant worry about a particular issue in a way that is out of proportion to the problem
  • Feeling your mind go blank or having a hard time concentrating
  • Not being able to let something go
  • Being indecisive or having difficulty with uncertainty
  • Being constantly on-edge, not being able to relax, fear about the decision you make and how it may be the wrong one

Anxiety Disorder Types

Anxiety disorder is a group of mental illnesses that either includes generalized anxiety disorder or it is referenced as an anxiety disorder. There are six classifications of anxiety disorders and this may be helpful in sharing what each one means so you can see if one is relevant to you.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

This is the one we are discussing and the most common type of anxiety disorder. Those who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder may have unrealistic or excessive tension, fear, or paranoia. It is different from a phobia where there is a specific stressor or trigger but instead, the person may have a sudden and intense onset. Anxiety occurs when the duration or severity of these feelings is out of proportion to the possible stressor or when they fail to subside on their own after prolonged exposure.

Although the most common anxiety disorder is considered a general sense of unease, there are 5 other types of anxiety disorders. The other mental disorders associated with anxiety include

Separation anxiety disorder (SAD)

A person with this anxiety disorder experiences extreme sadness when they are separated from a particular place that makes them feel safe or a person that they love. If the person is separated from this home base or the person, they feel intense sadness and may have panic attacks during these times. It is only considered this type of anxiety disorder if after separation the response is extreme, inappropriate, or excessive.


Most people believe this is a phobia where a person cannot leave their home – most likely due to movies that always show it that way. Instead, it is a complex phobia that is so much more than just being scared to leave your surroundings. It is a fear of being caught in a situation where escape is improbable or impossible. It can happen anywhere not just at home. Yet, if left untreated, the fears may become irrational and severe and this is where not leaving home comes in. The person may experience fear of being outside or away from home.

This is a disorder where those who have it will feel uncomfortable in everyday social situations. They may feel embarrassed even though they have done nothing at all wrong. They tend to fixate on feeling as if they are being judged. They may also feel embarrassed or out of place and may worry that they will be ridiculed. This creates a pattern of avoiding social situations even though none of the worries are founded.

Panic Disorder

Those with panic disorder feel extreme fright that can appear all of a sudden or at-random. They may be prone to panic attacks, in which they can experience sweat, heart palpitations, or difficult breathing. Panic attacks can lead to drastic changes in lifestyle or behavior to avoid future panic attacks.

Phobia Disorder

Do you have an unnatural fear of clowns or flying on an airplane? Phobia disorder is an intense fear of a certain thing, object, or situation. When a person with a phobia faces their fear, it can cause extreme difficulty and causes the person to find out ways to avoid the stressor.

Of course, some of the disorders have the same symptoms as a random onset, certain fears, and intrusive thoughts that won’t simply go away on their own. There are also common warning signs. These are signs like a racing heart, nausea, a feeling of being out of control, or labored breathing.

Please keep in mind that not all anxiety is bad, as mentioned before. Yet, if you are having anxiety that won’t go away and disturbs your life, it may be beneficial to get help.

Why Do People Have Anxiety Disorders?

To be honest, no one knows the exact reasons for someone having an anxiety disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association:

The causes of anxiety disorders are currently unknown but likely involve a combination of factors including genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental. Anxiety disorders can run in families, suggesting that a combination of genes and environmental stresses can produce the disorders.

What Kind of Help Is Available?

The first thing to do is talk to your doctor so that they can make a legitimate diagnosis into your anxiety disorder if you have one. The treatment for various types of anxiety disorders are medicine and psychotherapy.

One form of psychotherapy that has shown successful results for treating anxiety disorders includes cognitive behavioral therapy. This treatment aids in helping victims develop a new way of thinking that can help them feel less anxious and properly address their aversions and fears.

With counseling, you may participate in group therapy, one-on-one counseling, or family counseling. You may benefit from the above-mentioned cognitive behavioral therapy. The point is, there is not a one-size-fits-all way of treating generalized anxiety disorder. Instead, we focus on the individual and the needs they have. Everyone is unique which is why it is crucial to map out a course of action that benefits you as a person, instead of a cookie-cutter treatment plan.

Everyone has anxiety, but some of us need help to have a better quality of life and be able to enjoy the world without fear.

If you find it difficult to overcome your anxiety, our admissions team is always here to help answer any questions you may have. If you or a loved one needs help, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 877-942-2240.

How is anxiety different to phobia?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. You may not experience any symptoms until you come into contact with the source of your phobia. But in some cases, even thinking about the source of a phobia can make a person feel anxious or panicky. This is known as anticipatory anxiety.

What distinguishes phobia from social anxiety disorder?

Social phobia refers to the fear of being scrutinized and judged while performing some type of task in public, while social anxiety describes feelings of intense nervousness and self-consciousness that sufferers experience during one-on-one meetings or group social gatherings.

What makes generalized anxiety disorder different?

GAD usually involves a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread that interferes with how you live your life. It is not the same as occasionally worrying about things or experiencing anxiety due to stressful life events. People living with GAD experience frequent anxiety for months, if not years. GAD develops slowly.