Not sure whether your anxiety fits the definition of an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? We take a look at their similarities and differences.

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Initially, it can be hard to tell the difference because some symptoms — such as overwhelming fear and feelings of being out of control — are present in both. But there are some distinct differences.

For obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders, working out which diagnosis most closely fits your experiences is the first step to finding the best ways to manage your symptoms.

Though there are some overlaps between anxiety disorders and OCD, there are specific differences that set them apart.

Until recent years, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined OCD as a type of anxiety disorder because of the anxiety levels in the condition. But the recent edition, published in 2013, lists OCD as a separate condition.

OCD is now listed in the “obsessive-compulsive disorders and related conditions” section, which includes body dysmorphic disorder, hoarding disorder, and trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder).

Symptoms of anxiety disorders

There are many types of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), agoraphobia, and panic disorder. The common trait among these conditions is persistent, excessive anxiety or fearful thoughts in one or more situations.

In other words, people with an anxiety disorder experience fear or anxiety that is disproportionate to the situation (thoughts that predict more severe harm will occur than the situation actually warrants). Many people with an anxiety disorder recognize this, but that alone doesn’t help to lessen the symptoms.

Depending on the type of anxiety disorder you have, you might experience anxiety when faced with a specific situation or object, or you might find that many things trigger your anxiety throughout the day.

Symptoms of OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder also involves persistent thoughts that cause excessive fear, doubt, and anxiety. Unlike anxiety disorders, OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions:

  • Obsessions are unwelcome thoughts, worries, doubts, urges, or images that occur repeatedly. They can make you feel very anxious or uncomfortable.
  • Compulsions are repeated behaviors that you use to temporarily relieve the stress that an obsession has caused. This might involve repeated hand-washing or checking the door multiple times.

Without another way to manage their obsession, people with OCD rely on their compulsive patterns. They might engage in patterns of obsession and compulsion several times a day, which can interfere with daily life, and it often becomes a difficult cycle to break.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, an OCD diagnosis requires “obsessions and/or compulsions that are time-consuming (more than one hour a day), cause significant distress, and impair work or social functioning.”

Similar to anxiety disorders, a person with OCD often recognizes their obsessions are unrealistic, but this alone doesn’t make them easier to manage.

How common are anxiety disorders and OCD?

Anxiety disorders affect 18.1% of the U.S. population each year, making it the most common mental health condition in the country. While its highly treatable, only 36.9% of people with an anxiety disorder are receiving treatment.

OCD is less common, affecting around 2% to 3% of people in the United States. The average age at which symptoms appear is 19 years.

Are the treatments different?

After diagnosis, you can get a treatment plan specific to your needs. Treatments for OCD and anxiety disorders can include one or a mix of the following:

  • Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Medication to help reduce the symptoms. This might include anti-anxiety medications, such as beta-blockers and antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also help treat OCD, often in higher doses than used for depression.
  • Complementary health approaches, including relaxation techniques.

People with OCD and some types of anxiety disorder, such as specific phobias, can benefit from exposure and response prevention, a type of treatment for OCD.

It’s possible to have both OCD and an anxiety disorder. In fact, it’s common for someone with OCD to have other conditions, too, which might include anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders.

OCD has similar traits to other conditions, which the DSM-5 has compiled within its OCD chapter. Other conditions OCD could be confused with are:

  • hoarding disorder
  • body dysmorphic disorder
  • body focused repetitive disorder
  • olfactory reference syndrome

Though there are similarities such as repetitive behaviors and obsessions, there are some critical differences like body-only focuses or positive feelings from the repetitive behavior, which aren’t present in OCD.

Anxiety disorders such as separation anxiety disorder and agoraphobia can also be confused with OCD. Symptoms such as avoiding particular places or situations because of fear is common in all three conditions.

You can differentiate OCD from anxiety disorders by the presence of obsessions and compulsive behaviors. Both can cause a significant amount of distress and get in the way of important daily activities, such as working and going to school.

For example, if you have OCD, you may have a fear of contamination, so you wash your hands every time you touch something new. Or you may fear that someone might get harmed because you weren’t careful, so you count to a “safe” number when doing tasks.

These types of behaviors and thought patterns aren’t typically present in anxiety disorders.

A trained therapist can diagnose your condition correctly and prescribe the best treatment plan for you.

If you want to read more, you can check out this article in which mental health advocate Sam Dylan Finch talks about the differences between OCD and GAD.

It can be difficult to distinguish between an anxiety disorder and OCD because they can have similar symptoms, but there are some key differences.

The most significant symptom of OCD is the repetitive compulsions that come as a result of obsessions, which leads to repetitive cycles.

Whether it’s OCD or an anxiety disorder, the persistent and intrusive thoughts and excessive fears can be difficult and uncomfortable. But you can successfully take care of both conditions with the help of a trained therapist.