The Connection Between OCD, Anxiety And Depression

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 06/24/2022

There are many different kinds of mental health challenges and disorders that people experience in life. Sometimes one challenge can be connected to another. The symptoms experienced through one mental health disorder could lead to developing a secondary one. Many wonder about the connection between OCD, anxiety, and depression.

What Is OCD? 

OCD is obsessive-compulsive disorder. It's a mental health disorder that impacts the way a person thinks and behaves. It's believed that it impacts around 2% of the population, with more females than males diagnosed.

Someone that has OCD experiences obsessive thoughts that cause them extreme anxiety. These thoughts feel completely out of their control. While most people experience intrusive thoughts from time to time, for people with OCD, it is a problem that impacts their daily life.

For them to experience relief from the anxiety caused by these thoughts, there is a compulsive behavior that they engage in. Doing the behavior provides them with temporary relief from their anxiety until the obsessive thought or idea shows up again.

Types Of OCD

There are several different types of ways that OCD can show in a person's life. It can include the following:

  • Contamination OCD where people have a fear of being contaminated by germs. This causes them to do whatever they can to not be put at risk of getting sick. This can include frequent handwashing, constantly cleaning their surroundings, changing their clothes often, or throwing things out that they think might have been contaminated.
  • Perfection OCD where people are concerned with things being exact, in order, or having symmetry. People who struggle in this way may group their clothes in the closet by color, balance out the placement of objects on their bookshelves or desks, or have symmetry in touching things. For example, if they touch their glass with their right hand, they also need to touch it with their left hand.
  • Doubt and Harm OCD causes people to check and recheck things. This can include frequently checking to make sure that the doors are locked, going back in the house multiple times to make sure the iron was turned off, or calling people to make sure they’re OK. They may be afraid that they will accidentally hurt themselves or someone else.
  • Forbidden thoughts OCD is not discussed as often as the others. People living with this type of OCD experience intrusive and unwanted thoughts that tend to be violent or sexual in nature. They may have mental compulsions they stick to once they experience these forbidden thoughts. It could include saying a certain prayer or thinking a certain positive thing to cancel out the negative.

While there are many ways that OCD can show up in someone’s life, they tend to fall within the groups above. Once they experience the obsessive thought, the anxiety builds until they do the compulsive behavior to find some relief.

Fear is often at the base of these actions.  Some people struggling with OCD have what is known as magical thinking, where they believe that if they don’t do the compulsive behavior, then something bad could happen to them or someone else. This is what drives them to continue doing the compulsive behavior or ritual.

What Is Anxiety? 

Many people use the word anxiety as a synonym for worry or stress. However, anxiety is at a different level than daily stress and worry.

Anxiety is the response that your body and mind have to stressful situations, real or imagined. While everyone will experience some level of anxiety from time to time, it is very different when it comes to mental health diagnosis and anxiety disorders.

When someone has an anxiety disorder, feelings of fear, and panic that they experience impact their daily life and activities. They may avoid going to certain places or doing certain things because of the anxiety that they feel. Several different types of anxiety disorders can be diagnosed. Some of the common symptoms involved with anxiety include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling nervous, tense, or sensing danger.
  • Hyperventilation or rapid breathing
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Uncontrolled worry
  • Digestive problems
  • Difficulty concentrating

While some people may have specific areas that their anxiety impacts them, others experience it in all parts of life without understanding where it’s coming from.

OCD Vs. Anxiety

In the past, obsessive-compulsive disorder was classified as an anxiety disorder. However, in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is used during diagnosis, it was classified separately.

Some of the symptoms that people experience with OCD are similar to anxiety disorders because anxiety plays a role in the disorder. The anxiety that they experience as a result of their obsessive thought leads them to engage in compulsive behavior.

The difference is that the obsessions and compulsions are a key part of the OCD diagnosis. These are not things that are necessarily present in other anxiety disorders.

If you're wondering, “Do I have OCD or anxiety?” you can take an online quiz to see if your symptoms align with possibly having OCD. You can also talk to a mental health professional about the symptoms you’re experiencing to find out if there is a diagnosis.

Is There A Connection Between OCD, Anxiety, And Depression?

Studies have found that there is somewhat of a connection between OCD and anxiety and depression. While the numbers vary, it's believed that between 25% and 50% of people living with obsessive-compulsive disorder also develop a depressive disorder. It's believed that the connection is due to the extreme symptoms that people with OCD experience.

Because their life is regularly impacted by higher levels of anxiety that impact their behavior and thoughts, it can be easy to see why they could begin to struggle with depression as well. Many people with OCD who are not going through treatment feel that they have no control over the thoughts or symptoms that they are experiencing. This can be overwhelming and discouraging. And this is why people need to become educated on the many treatment options available for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If you're struggling with OCD and wonder if you are also struggling with depression, it can help understand what the symptoms of depression are. They can include things like:

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Not being interested in activities that you previously enjoyed.
  • Changes in sleep routines and patterns (sleeping too much or not being able to sleep)
  • Increased levels of irritability or anger
  • Eating more than normal or not being able to eat enough
  • Uncontrolled emotions or feeling numb

Some of the symptoms of depression are similar to symptoms that people experience anxiety. Along with OCD, people who struggle with anxiety disorders have a higher rate of developing a depressive disorder.

What Can You Do About OCD, Anxiety, And Depression?

Thankfully several different treatment options are effective at treating OCD, anxiety, and depression. When you work with a mental health professional, they can help you identify what mental health disorders you may be dealing with and what the best course of treatment is for you.

While there are many things that you can do on your own to address some of the symptoms associated with these disorders, it can be best to work with a mental health professional when treating and working on overcoming OCD.

One of the most common forms of treatment that's used for OCD is called exposure therapy. This is when your therapist works with you to expose you to small levels of obsessive thoughts or fears. Then, they help you to delay reacting with your compulsive behavior.

For example, if you need things to be placed in a certain spot on a desk, they may have you move an object out of place and wait several minutes before putting it back in place. The idea behind this type of therapy is to help a person struggling with OCD to see that the obsessive fear that they have behind their action is generally unwarranted. For example, items not being aligned in a certain way are not going to harm someone else.

Other forms of treatment can be used as well to help people overcome their symptoms of OCD. The therapist will work with you at the level that you're comfortable making progress.

Things that you can do at home to address some of the anxiety that you may be experiencing can include things like:

  • Practicing good self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising regularly
  • Journaling
  • Connecting with a support system of family and friends
  • Mindfulness
  • Deep breathing

But even though there are some things you can do to make progress on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from an experienced mental health professional.