Everyone experiences stress or anxiety from time to time. However, when these feelings become chronic and impact your day to day activities and responsibilities, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder or OCD. To distinguish between the two, it’s important to recognize that anxiety relates to chronic distressing thoughts, while OCD is marked by actions upon these distressing thoughts.
What Is OCD?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by compulsions and obsessions. Anxious or intrusive thoughts lead people to act on their urges, resulting in these compulsive or repetitive behaviors. The goal of doing so is to reduce the stress and anxiety that accompany these thoughts.
Common symptoms of OCD include:
- Strict rituals or behaviors to calm anxious thoughts
- Excessive cleaning
- Persistent or intrusive thoughts
- Preventative actions to reduce thought triggers
What Is Anxiety?
An anxiety disorder can be similar to OCD in a physiological way. But, the way anxiety works within the body is different. Anxiety is a feeling that includes feelings of worry, tension, and uncertainty that can trigger stress, among other things. Anxiety is linked to higher blood pressure as well.
Some common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Racing mind
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Feelings of dread or panic
- Feeling disconnected
- Feeling restless, jumpy, or on-edge
- Exhaustion or fatigue
- Insomnia or feeling unrested after sleep
4 Key Differences Between Anxiety & OCD
Those with OCD engage in very different behaviors than those with anxiety, as the root of one’s OCD is generally more specific. Those with OCD experience repetitive thoughts that lead to nervousness, and thus engage in certain behaviors to soothe these anxieties. Conversely, those with anxiety tend to experience intrusive thoughts as well, but don’t engage in the same compulsions. Instead, they may remain in the mental space of stress from which their anxiety stems.1
Here are four differences between OCD and Anxiety:
Compulsions are a key element of OCD, as they are a result of needing or wanting to alleviate an obsessive or intrusive thought. These are not present with anxiety–anxiety manifests thoughts more so as scenarios, avoidance behaviors, or “what-if”s. Compulsions make OCD difficult to manage, as engaging in said behavior is not always possible or advisable.
2. Causes for Anxieties
For those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the sources of one’s anxiety may overlap with those of OCD, but are also very different. Anxieties for those with OCD may be very small, seemingly insignificant details that bother them. On the other hand, someone with GAD may experience more situational or life-related anxieties. For example, they may also deal with social anxiety, driving anxiety, and other types of anxiety or specific phobias.
3. Duration of Anxieties
Someone with an anxiety disorder may have anxiety that only persists until they are able to work through an anxiety attack or stressor. Those with OCD may be able to lessen symptoms of anxiety after completing a ritual, but the very same anxiety will eventually return.
4. Types of Thoughts, and Behaviors
Those with GAD have thoughts and behaviors that may be aligned, but their responses to anxieties are not compulsions. Instead, they frequently behave in certain ways in response to how they’re feeling in the moment. Behaviors of those with OCD need to be acted upon immediately, as a person believes not doing so will lead to negative repercussions or consequences.3
Is OCD an Anxiety Disorder?
OCD and anxiety are on the same continuum of mental health disorders. OCD can be recognized as a type of anxiety disorder, as the manifestation of OCD overlaps heavily with the same mental neural pathways associated with anxiety. However, research into OCD shows that there are more differences between anxiety and OCD–which is why we consider the two related, but not necessarily interchangeable.2
How Are OCD & Anxiety Diagnosed?
For a person to be diagnosed with OCD, there must be a recurrence of repetitive behaviors that negatively impact one’s life. The diagnosis process for both OCD and anxiety may be similar, as each will entail identifying a person’s thoughts, behaviors, and triggers. What will differentiate a diagnosis lies in how a person chooses to cope with these factors. A person with OCD may do so by engaging in compulsions, whereas someone with anxiety may dwell or fixate on a thought, as well as any possible scenarios and outcomes.2
How Are Anxiety & OCD Treated?
Treatment for OCD and anxiety will generally include a multifaceted approach that includes both psychotherapy and medication. While certain techniques may vary, a person should expect some similarities between treatment approaches. To determine if you may benefit from anxiety treatment, OCD treatment, or both, exploring your options is the first step towards recovery.2
Therapy is a great way to learn about your thoughts and how they impact your behavior in order to manage them. It can also better your understanding of what causes your intrusive thoughts or cognitive distortions, as well as identify what may be triggering them. Many behavior-based therapies are found to be effective for both OCD and anxiety. To find the right therapist or psychiatrist, you can start by using an online therapist directory.
Therapy options for anxiety and OCD may include:
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT can help those with OCD, as it encourages clients to form new relationships with their intrusive thoughts or compulsions. It helps people separate their thoughts from behaviors, so they are not urged to act upon them.
- Exposure therapy (ERP): Studies show that exposure therapy for OCD or anxiety can be beneficial in managing symptoms. Controlled exposure teaches those with OCD to form new perceptions of their thoughts, thus allowing these thoughts to exist without controlling one’s actions or behaviors. It also helps to desensitize a person to these thoughts.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT for anxiety or CBT for OCD are helpful, because they reorient the mind’s relationships with thoughts and behaviors. It allows people to work through their triggers and find ways to cope with them, without acting on impulses.4
Sometimes, especially in chronic cases, medication–in combination with therapy–may be necessary. There aren’t any specific prescriptions for OCD–but, since it usually co-occurs with other mental conditions like anxiety, anxiety medication may be appropriate. Talk with your doctor or psychiatrist to better understand what being on anxiety medication might feel like for you. It’s important to also discuss the risks associated with any medication.4
How to Cope With Anxiety & OCD
There are ways a person can learn to cope with symptoms of either anxiety or OCD. You can make healthy lifestyle changes and engage in mindful and wellness based practices to keep you grounded.
Here are some ways to cope with comorbid anxiety and OCD:
- Practice meditation: Meditation for anxiety can be a great coping method, as it allows you time to relax and reset. Implementing this practice into your daily routine can help reduce symptoms by bringing balance, self-awareness, and new ways to manage your stress.
- Practice journaling: Journaling is a great way to deal with anxiety and OCD. Writing out your thoughts and feelings can help you process symptoms. By doing this, you can learn more about your behaviors and understand where they may come from.
- Practice grounding techniques: Mental grounding techniques include cognitive, somatic, and behavioral exercises. These techniques can shift negative perceptions into more realistic or positive ones. Furthermore, they can support you in reframing difficult situations, as they encourage you to focus on your present feelings.
- Practice mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness for anxiety can help you stay grounded in the moment. By taking a step back and remembering to think before you react, you may reduce any autopilot impulsive responses.
- Practice self-compassion: A big part of working through perfectionism is accepting yourself the way you are. Give yourself the self-compassion and self-love you deserve, regardless of your performance. You are worthy just as you are.
While dealing with OCD or anxiety is challenging, remember that you are not alone in these difficulties! If you are struggling with symptoms of either condition, seeking help is greatly encouraged. Finding relief is possible with a treatment plan, and working with a therapist is a great way to learn how to manage your symptoms effectively.