Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Is OCD a Form of Anxiety? Here’s the Key Difference Between Them

4 min read
Keara Valentine
By Keara Valentine

Everyone experiences anxiety or worry at some point in their lives. For people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, the anxiety of intrusive thoughts is what compels them toward compulsive rituals and/or avoidance. It often feels like they must do these things or else something bad will happen, which can lead to strong feelings of anxiety. But does that mean OCD is a type of anxiety disorder? If not, what’s the difference, and how are they connected? 

Though OCD and anxiety are closely related, OCD is a separate diagnosis. In this article, we’ll discuss the key distinctions between OCD and anxiety disorders, why they are separate diagnoses and in what ways they overlap. We’ll also talk about why OCD is treated differently from anxiety.

How OCD and anxiety are different

To start, it’s helpful to define these two diagnoses. 

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Anxiety is an umbrella term for multiple anxiety-related disorders. Anxiety affects 18% of the United States population, making it the most commonly diagnosed mental health condition in the country. A common diagnosis within the anxiety umbrella is generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, which is characterized by “persistent and excessive worry” about multiple issues, which lasts for over six months and is accompanied by at least three physical symptoms, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America

Some anxiety symptoms include

  • Feeling nervous, irritable or on edge
  • Breathing rapidly, hyperventilating or trembling
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal problems
  • An increased heart rate

OCD, on the other hand, is a condition where a person experiences unwanted thoughts, urges or impulses that are obsessive and lead them to compulsive actions in an attempt to reduce the distress that comes with these thoughts. 

Some symptoms of OCD are: 

  • Persistent unwanted thoughts, images or urges
  • Attempts to control the thoughts with rituals
  • Time spent each day avoiding or preventing thoughts, images or urges

Though distressing thoughts are a big part of both generalized anxiety disorder and OCD, the key difference is that OCD is characterized by obsessive thoughts and resulting compulsive actions. In contrast, someone with more general anxiety will experience worries without necessarily taking compulsive actions. Additionally, GAD is generally characterized by physical symptoms of anxiety, such as hyperventilation, while physical symptoms are not a requirement for an OCD diagnosis, according to therapist Davida Vaughn, M.S., Ed.S., LPC.

It is possible to have both generalized anxiety and OCD, but one does not require the other — and it’s also important to mention that anxiety is not a necessary part of OCD. Dr. Patrick McGrath, Head of Clinical Services at NOCD, points out in a recent video that sometimes compulsions are motivated by other equally intense and uncomfortable emotions, like disgust, shame, or guilt, rather than anxiety. 

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How OCD and anxiety are treated

OCD was historically conceptualized as an anxiety disorder because of the intense anxiety or fear associated with persistent and unwanted thoughts, images and urges. However, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified OCD as a separate diagnosis. This is because there are significant differences in brain chemistry and function for each of these disorders. There are similarities in treatment for OCD and anxiety, but they may in some cases differ or be contradictory. 

GAD is generally characterized by physical symptoms of anxiety, such as hyperventilation. Physical symptoms are not a requirement for an OCD diagnosis.

Both OCD and anxiety can be treated with a form of cognitive behavior therapy. CBT is an umbrella term to describe types of evidence-based therapies that are rooted in the idea that the way a person behaves and feels is influenced, at least in part, by their thoughts. 

Anxiety disorders such as GAD are usually treated with a combination of CBT and medication. The standard treatment for OCD is exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP, which is also a type of CBT. ERP specifically focuses on targeting the obsessions and compulsions the patient is experiencing. During treatment, a patient works with a therapist to slowly expose themselves to the source of their obsession — without performing a compulsive action. The idea behind ERP therapy is that when a person realizes that they don’t need to follow an obsessive thought with a compulsion and that they’re able to handle the discomfort of their thoughts, they learn they can overcome their OCD. 

One way that treatment for OCD and GAD can differ is when a person seeks reassurance as a compulsion. For some people with OCD, reassurance seeking can be a compulsion meant to soothe or solve obsessive thoughts. In ERP treatment, the goal would be to avoid this reassurance and manage the discomfort that comes as a result. However, when treating GAD, it may be a helpful part of treatment for individuals to examine evidence and challenge their thoughts or to get feedback about specific anxieties. 

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Effective treatment of OCD has been found to lead to more manageable symptoms of depression and anxiety, which is usually attributed to the fact that people are able to more easily dismiss the stressful intrusive thoughts from their OCD that cause them anxiety.

If you’re interested in learning more about ERP, sign up for a free 15-minute call with the NOCD care team and find out how a licensed therapist can help you. Every therapist at NOCD specializes in OCD and receives ERP-specific training.

Keara Valentine

Keara E. Valentine, Psy.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine in the OCD and Related Disorders Track, where she specializes in the assessment and treatment of OCD and related disorders. Dr. Valentine utilizes behavioral-based therapies including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) with children, adolescents, and adults experiencing anxiety-related disorders.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Licensed Therapist, MA

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Licensed Therapist, LCMHC

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

Tamara Harrison

Tamara Harrison

Licensed Therapist, MA

I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.

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