Determining the difference between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma disorders can be a challenge. Confusing this issue is the fact that PTSD and other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), often co-occur.

Signs and Diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD is characterized by excessive worry and anxiety. While most people experience some worry or anxiety in their lifetime, someone suffering from GAD feels worry and anxiety more often than not and may also experience the following:

  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Feeling easily tired
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle Tension
  • Sleep pattern disruptions

GAD is differentiated from other anxiety disorders in that symptoms of GAD must be present for at least six months before a diagnosis of the disorder can be made.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that sometimes occurs after an individual witnesses a traumatic event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury to self or others. In response to the event, the individual feels scared, hopeless or horrified and re-experiences the trauma for at least one month following the trauma. Individuals suffering from PTSD may re-experience the trauma in the following ways:

  • Mental images
  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Dreams
  • Flashbacks including illusions or hallucinations
  • Psychological or physiological distress in response to cues that symbolize the traumatic event

Those suffering from PTSD avoid stimuli associated with the trauma by trying not to think, feel or talk about it. They avoid places, activities and people that remind them of the trauma or may be unable to recall specifics about it. They lose interest in things they once cared about and often remain detached from others. Emotions may appear blunted and the person envisions a short future where they don’t believe they will have a career, marriage, children or a normal lifespan. Lastly, PTSD manifests with the following:

  • Sleep pattern disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Easy startled responses

Telling GAD and PTSD Apart

Larry Beall, Ph.D. reports on that GAD and PTSD sometimes co-occur. Another study notes the prevalence of co-occurring GAD and PTSD as possible proof of a lack of diagnostic reliability of GAD. Another possibility is that GAD is defined with such broad criteria that it naturally overlaps into more specific disorders. For example, GAD is characterized by significant anxiety and worry, issues that may surface when an individual suffers from PTSD as well. In both illnesses, individuals may avoid places, activities and people in response to anxiety and worry.

To further explain the difference between PTSD and GAD, experts put forth another possible theory, claiming that co-occurrence may arise due to features of one disorder serving as a risk factor for the development of the other. For example, an individual who suffers from GAD and then experiences a traumatic event may be more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD due to a pre-existing tendency towards excessive worry and anxiety that is magnified by witnessing a traumatic event.