Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC
Many of us are familiar with the signs and symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is indeed a normal part of life, and it’s one that nearly everyone experiences at one point or another.
Anxiety disorders, however, cross the line between normal behavior and harmful, uncontrollable behavior. Anxiety disorders involve worry beyond what is considered normal or acceptable for a given situation, and they may cause anxiety even when there is no clear cause.
While OCD was once categorized as an anxiety disorder, the most recent version of the DSM-5, the guide book that professionals use for diagnostics, separated OCD and anxiety disorders due to the specific nature of OCD.
OCD does not fall under the umbrella of the term “anxiety disorder,” but it does share some similar characteristics. OCD certainly involves anxious feelings and obsessive thoughts, but it is unique in its symptoms in many other regards.
Below we will explore what an anxiety disorder is, what OCD is, and we will compare and contrast the two. We’ll also outline how to seek treatment for OCD and what sort of treatment options are available.
What Is An Anxiety Disorder?
Some degree of anxiety throughout life, especially during increased stress or emotion, is expected. However, when anxiety involves more than just temporary worry and begins to interfere with one’s livelihood, an anxiety disorder may be blamed.
There are many types of anxiety disorders, including phobias, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Though each disorder has its unique symptoms and challenges, they all generally involve excessive worry (or the kind of worry that interferes with day-to-day life).
An individual with GAD, for example, may regularly feel intense anxiety that interferes with sleep, mood, and ability to focus, among other factors. An individual with panic disorder may have recurrent panic attacks and isolate themselves from outside stimuli as a result.
Anxiety disorders are very individual - in other words, no two people may experience an anxiety disorder in the same way. However, they are different from the normal anxiety we associate with stressful situations (like taking a test) in one key way: they cause consistent, serious emotional/mental distress and interfere with one’s life.
What Is OCD?
It’s important to note that some degree of intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors is normal and does not mean that someone has OCD. Being a perfectionist in the workplace, for example, does not mean someone has “some” OCD.
OCD is an extreme level of obsession and compulsion that causes intense distress and impacts one’s life. It can impact school, work, relationships, and more.
OCD Definition And OCD Meaning
OCD, which stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a condition that can be characterized by a cycle of obsessions (unwanted or intrusive thoughts, urges, etc.) and compulsions (behaviors one engages in to decrease the stress caused by these thoughts).
Because OCD symptoms may differ from person to person based on the source of the obsessions and compulsions, it’s hard to make a definitive list of signs and symptoms. Instead, it’s important to understand what obsessions and compulsions are.
What Is OCD Behavior Like?
Obsessions are thoughts, images, or urges that occur repeatedly and uncontrollably. They can be incredibly frustrating for those who suffer from OCD, as they often recognize that their thoughts don’t actually seem to make sense or maybe they are excessive. Still, an individual with OCD may find it impossible to ignore these intrusive thoughts.
Below are some common examples of obsessions:
- Fear of germs
- Losing control
- Unwanted sexual thoughts or urges
- Perfectionist-like obsessions, like keeping everything completely symmetrical, even, etc.
Obsessions can cause intense distress, anxiety, paranoia, and other feelings of discomfort. In response to these feelings come compulsions, which are behaviors that seek to alleviate stress.
Below are some common examples of compulsions:
- Excessive cleanliness or handwashing
- Ordering and arranging things repeatedly in a certain way, organizing things, etc.
- Checking on things (checking if the door is locked, for example)
It’s also important to remember that not all routine behaviors are compulsive or harmful. Having a specific morning routine that you follow, for example, is not an indication of OCD and can be a normal part of life.
Some notable differences between OCD and normal behavior include:
- Not being able to control or stop intrusive thoughts, even if they are recognized to be excessive
- Not receiving pleasure or relief by performing the task in question - for instance, not feeling satisfied with cleanliness even when a messy desk is tidied up
- Significant impact on daily life, or spending a large amount of time (an hour or more) on these behaviors regularly
Understanding the difference between normal behavior and behavior associated with OCD is key to supporting those with OCD.
Not only might an individual with OCD seek reassurance and validity, but they might also feel alone or as if no one understands how they feel. Having a strong support system is an important part of treatment for any mental illness, as we’ll discuss in more detail later.
OCD & Anxiety Disorders
With a basic understanding of OCD and anxiety disorders in mind, it’s easy to see some overlap.
You might be tempted to assume that OCD is considered an anxiety disorder, but this is not the case. As of 2013, OCD has not been considered an anxiety disorder (according to the DSM-5), even though it may share some similar characteristics.
Anxiety And OCD: How They Interact
Despite not being classified as an anxiety disorder, OCD is not free of anxiety as a challenge. Anxiety manifests itself in many ways for those who suffer from OCD. As mentioned, compulsions are usually an attempt to lessen the stress and anxiety associated with obsessions - however, these behaviors often only temporarily help. Also, failing to perform rituals/behaviors can also cause significant anxiety.
The obsessions and compulsions that one experiences might impact their ability to perform daily tasks, even important ones. It can feel like a vicious cycle that is impossible to escape, especially if left untreated for significant amounts of time.
If OCD shares similar symptoms with anxiety disorders and involves notable anxiety itself, why does it have its classification? There are several reasons why it’s important to differentiate between OCD and anxiety disorders, but perhaps most significant is the need for proper, effective treatment.
Because both obsessions and compulsions characterize OCD, unlike other mental illnesses (including anxiety disorders), approaching treatment with a misguided mindset means that it may not be effective.
Managing anxiety symptoms may be an important part of an individual’s treatment, for example, but failing to understand and address the specific underlying causes and consequences may only further worsen things over time.
Do You Think You Or Someone You Know May Suffer From OCD?
If the symptoms we’ve discussed above OCD sound familiar to you (whether it be about yourself or someone you care about), you may find it beneficial to take our free, confidential OCD symptom test.
This test is not meant to be treated as a diagnostic tool, and it should not supplement an official diagnosis from a medical professional. Instead, it will offer you the opportunity to review your symptoms, consider to what degree they impact your life, and begin the process of seeking medical care if necessary.
If you think someone you know may be suffering from OCD, it’s important to remember not to try and diagnose them. You might find it helpful to have a private conversation regarding your concerns and/or encourage your loved one to consider pursuing professional help.
The challenges that OCD creates can seem impossible. Fortunately, effective treatment for OCD is attainable. Through treatment, as well as the support of others, relief from OCD is possible.
Speak To A Professional About Treating OCD
Treating OCD typically involves therapy. Treatment plans will vary on an individual basis, and it may depend on the severity of the case in question.
The first step of treatment is generally to present your concerns to a healthcare professional. You may receive a referral to a mental health professional, like a therapist or psychiatrist, for further assistance. This step will also help ensure that any other related symptoms or factors (like other mental disorders, for example) are being taken into consideration when formulating a treatment plan.
When it comes to therapy, things may be a bit more personalized. Different forms of therapy may work for different people, but some are generally considered better for treating OCD than others.
Evidence suggests that the most effective form of therapy may be Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which exposes a patient to relevant thoughts or images and teaches them to avoid the compulsive behaviors that accompany them.
Most individuals with OCD find relief and success from the treatment plan discussed above, but some may require a higher level of care. In this case, both inpatient and outpatient facilities are viable options. For all guidance regarding treatment, it’s important to consult with a licensed medical professional.
Regardless of what sort of treatment an individual receives, it’s important to be kind to oneself. As life goes on, stressors and triggers may continue to present themselves and exacerbate the symptoms associated with OCD. OCD treatment can be challenging, and it certainly won’t heal someone overnight.
However, determination, patience, and having a good support network can make a huge difference.
Those who are receiving treatment for OCD might find it especially beneficial to seek out a support group, whether physical and in-person or online, to connect with others who can relate to their experiences. Having a strong support system of friends and family is also a great place to start.
After breaking down both anxiety disorders in general and OCD, we’ve explored where the two overlap and where they do not.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear and worry that significantly impact an individual’s life. OCD is a disorder characterized by obsessions (intrusive thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors in response to these thoughts).
One of the key points that these two have in common is that both can be effectively treated. No matter what the case may be, support and help are out there. Now you’re equipped with the tools to seek it out.