What Is the Difference Between Anxiety and OCD?
Anxious feelings manifest themselves in many different ways, and almost everyone experiences anxious feelings at one time or another. Whether it’s as simple as worrying about what to wear or as serious as fearing a loved one’s death, anyone can struggle with anxiety without being diagnosed with OCD. However, it is impossible for someone struggling with OCD to not also be struggling with anxiety.
When we get asked about how anxiety and OCD are related, we call it a distinction without a difference. While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) treats anxiety disorders and OCD as separate diagnoses, anxiety is best understood as existing on a spectrum, with OCD at the extreme end.
That said, the only difference between the two is that OCD is defined by how an individual responds to anxiety in their daily life. People who are not struggling with OCD deal with anxious feelings in ways that do not interfere with their quality of life.
But when someone is struggling with OCD, they have formed maladaptive behaviors based on an immediate threat that only exists in their mind. To guard against that perceived threat, they invent rituals or avoidance behaviors to prevent the unfounded threat or danger.
Is OCD a Type of Anxiety?
Yes, OCD is best understood as an extreme type of anxiety. Though the DSM-5 treats it as its own diagnosis, it is more helpful for individuals struggling with OCD and their family members to approach OCD as a more acute form of anxiety. Everyone struggles with anxious feelings from time to time, but when someone is diagnosed with OCD, their anxious responses are fueled by triggers that lead to compulsions or rituals.
Can Anxiety Cause OCD?
Because OCD is essentially an extreme type of anxiety, anxiety can eventually lead to OCD. Just like anxiety, OCD thought patterns are cyclical, and without treatment, they may grow worse and spread to other members of the family. Not only can anxiety eventually lead to the development of OCD in an individual, one person’s obsessive-compulsive behavior can influence other family members.
However, it is important to remember that the causes of OCD are too complex to attribute to a singular cause. What causes OCD is a complex combination of biological, genetic, learning, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Fortunately, when it comes to treating OCD, the most important factors are cognitive and behavioral, and healing underlying anxiety should be a critical component of care.
Are you or someone you care about struggling with acute anxiety or obsessive-compulsive thought patterns? Our team can help with both. OCD Treatment Options
What Is the Role of Anxiety in OCD?
Nobody wants to feel fear or anxiety about a possible negative event, but anxiety and OCD are related when normal anxieties morph into obsessions. Obsessions differ from anxiety in that they have three core parts
- Trigger: a situation, object, or person that stimulates anxiety (e.g., touching a “contaminated” door knob in a public bathroom)
- Intrusion: an unwanted thought, image, or impulse caused by a confrontation with the trigger
- Feared consequence: a negative event or outcome that the individual predicts will happen as a result of contact with the trigger
Individuals diagnosed with OCD actively try to reduce or eliminate their obsessions by performing compulsions or rituals. Someone who does not struggle with obsessive-compulsive thoughts patterns may experience similar anxieties without feeling the need to perform rituals.
How Does Anxiety Lead to OCD?
Anxiety morphs into OCD when normal, everyday anxious feelings become obsessive. It does not develop overnight. It often takes a period of months or years to develop, but it can be identified sooner by the presence of obsessive-compulsive thought patterns.
For example, someone diagnosed with OCD may feel compelled to take eight-hour showers in order to believe that they are clean and sanitized. As with all cases of OCD, the individual does not wake up one morning suddenly obsessing about germs to the point that they have to take eight-hour showers.
Instead, it develops gradually. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies may start years before they evolve into OCD. Someone working in the healthcare field may initially feel no more anxious about germs than anyone else, but over time, intrusive thoughts may begin to creep in. Eventually, the normal experience of anxiety can develop into an obsession when paired with a combination of biological, genetic, learning, lifestyle, and environmental risk factors.
One week, the person may feel they only need to stay in the shower for an extra fifteen minutes to believe they are sanitized. Then, they feel the need to spend 30 more minutes the month after that, and so on, until they have to remain in the shower for eight hours. By then, they no longer have time to sleep or stay on top of their daily responsibilities.
Because OCD is an extreme on the spectrum of anxiety, the most difficult part is that it generally only gets worse without treatment and has been known to suck in entire families into obsessions when not caught soon enough.
PCH’s OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center Specializes in Difficult Cases of OCD
At PCH, we understand OCD is a serious matter because our team has seen how dramatically it can detract from the quality of life in our clients. The example of the individual struggling with taking eight-hour showers was not a hypothetical one. We successfully treated that individual, and as difficult as it can be to know how to help a loved one with OCD, the most important thing to remember is that recovery is possible, no matter how extreme the obsessions or rituals.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with obsessive-compulsive thought patterns or worsening anxiety that interferes with daily life, find out if PCH is right for you and reach out when you are ready for help.