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The Differences Between GAD, Performance Anxiety, And Social Anxiety

The Differences Between GAD, Performance Anxiety, And Social Anxiety

The term “anxiety” is used in a lot of different contexts. So much so that we’re often left wondering what the word really means.

Anxiety is experienced differently by everyone and therefore can mean different things to different people.

Adding even more to the confusion is the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety.

Yes, there is such a thing as healthy anxiety.

For example, some stress before a big test can help you stay motivated. And a few nerves before a presentation can feel energizing or exciting.

It’s when the levels of stress become so high that they’re unmanageable or you begin to avoid certain situations because of them, it becomes what’s known as unhealthy anxiety.

Clinically speaking, there are five major types of anxiety disorders, which are given as a diagnosis from a doctor.

Here we’re going to talk about the differences between three of those five: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Performance Anxiety, and Social Anxiety.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list of symptoms or treatment options for these anxiety types; instead, this is intended to be a brief overview of the differences between the three.

If you feel that you may be experiencing anxiety, it’s important to reach out to your doctor.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or what’s known as GAD, affects roughly 3% of the U.S. population every year. People who suffer from GAD fixate on fears and concerns to an extent that negatively impacts their lives.

We all experience periodic anxiety about a health scare, our finances, or our job.

What separates people with GAD is that they often experience their anxiety at a higher intensity and far more frequently.

Doctors generally give a GAD diagnosis when a person meets two conditions:

  1. They struggle to control their worries on more days than not for at least six months.
  2. They experience three or more symptoms of GAD in connection to those concerns.

The most common GAD symptoms include:

  • Feeling nervous, irritable, or on edge
  • Having an impending sense of panic
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches

Notice that these symptoms are more than just an on-going sense of worry. GAD can have mental, physical, and behavioral effects.

It’s also important to point out that not everyone experiences the same symptoms to the same degree.

Some may experience a few symptoms at a moderate level while others experience more symptoms at a more severe level.

Causes Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Everyone is different, and the exact cause of general anxiety isn’t known.

However, several risk factors increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing GAD. These often include:

  • Genetics and family background
  • Brain chemistry: Studies have found differences in the neural pathways of patients with GAD
  • Traumatic experiences or events: Things like a divorce, the death of a loved one, or a robbery

How To Overcome Generalized Anxiety Disorder

General anxiety often feels difficult to manage. And finding the right treatment depends on your situation and your personal needs.

It’s important to work with your doctor to find options that will work for you.

Some of the most common treatment options for GAD include the following:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a set of exercises and techniques under the guidance of a therapist or mental health counselor to help you identify patterns of unhelpful thoughts and negative behavior, grow more comfortable approaching things that cause you fear and developing new skills to manage your thoughts and emotions.
  • Talk therapy or interpersonal therapy is one of the most well-known options and is the practice of speaking to a therapist to express worries and fears and to develop solutions.
  • Prescription medications including benzodiazepines and SSRIs are sometimes prescribed. This should always be done under the close supervision of a doctor.

Performance Anxiety

What Is Performance Anxiety?

You know that feeling when you’re about to go into a job interview or walk out on stage and you start hyperventilating and trembling because you’re so nervous? That’s performance anxiety.

Performance Anxiety, also often referred to as Situational Anxiety, impacts public speakers, musicians, and anyone who is in any kind of performance situation where they’re being observed or evaluated.

Common symptoms of performance anxiety include:

  • Rapid Heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Nausea

What Causes Performance Anxiety?

The pressure to do well in a job interview, stress over being on-stage, or just worry about being embarrassed can all contribute to performance anxiety.

Often, it stems from the spotlight effect: our perception that people notice far more about us than they do.

Again some nerves before a big moment are totally normal- but when these nerves outweigh the actual situation or cause you to avoid the situation altogether, it becomes performance anxiety.

How To Overcome Performance Anxiety

As with GAD, treatments for performance anxiety can include both therapy and medications and depends on your specific needs. Always be sure to speak with a doctor about the best option for you.

  • CBT can help patients rewire their reactions to stress and create new neural pathways to avoid performance anxiety.
  • Talk therapy can address the root causes of patients’ stress, reducing their susceptibility to performance anxiety.
  • A Propranolol prescription, a type of beta-blocker medication, can help stop the fight-or-flight response that causes the physical symptoms of performance anxiety.

Social Anxiety

What Is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety refers to overwhelming stress associated with social situations. People with social anxiety often fear public scrutiny or social interaction.

Common symptoms of social anxiety include:

  • Excessive blushing
  • Sweating
  • Trouble speaking
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

What Causes Social Anxiety?

Our natural fear of embarrassment or humiliation usually causes social anxiety. No one enjoys the thought of being embarrassed, but with social anxiety, that dislike becomes overly intense.

Some sufferers avoid engaging in social situations altogether.

Social anxiety has some similarities to performance anxiety. But whereas performance anxiety occurs in response to specific, high-stress events, social anxiety tends to interpret any interaction with an unknown person as highly stressful and anxiety-inducing.

Similar to GAD, the exact cause of Social Anxiety isn’t known. However, some causes can be:

  • Genetic
  • Associated with an overactive amygdala (the region of the brain that controls the fear response)
  • A past embarrassing social situation that prompts an anxious response in all future social interactions

How To Overcome Social Anxiety

Like we mentioned above, the right treatment option always varies from person-to-person and should involve a conversation with your doctor.

Most common options for Social Anxiety include:

  • Therapy, like CBT or Talk Therapy
  • Medication, including SSRIs, benzodiazepines, or occasionally beta-blockers


If you feel you are experiencing any of the symptoms above and need support, it’s important to reach out for help.

Here are a few ways you can reach out: