OCD And Anxiety: How Are They Related?

Many people have heard of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Still, there are many misconceptions about these conditions. These myths can make it difficult for people with disorders to get the correct diagnosis and treatment.

GAD¹ and OCD² impact millions of Americans every year, so it’s important to be aware of the similarities and differences. In this article, learn more about these conditions, how doctors diagnose them, and treatment options.

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Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

What is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder. If you have OCD, you’ll have obsessive thoughts that cause compulsive behaviors. Obsessive thoughts can be about many different things, but you may experience fear-based obsessions. These include getting sick from bad food or germs, acting on violent impulses, or being responsible for harm to a loved one. 

When these obsessive thoughts arise, you’ll use compulsions to reduce your anxiety or escape the disturbing thoughts. Some common compulsions include:

  • Excessive cleaning and handwashing

  • Repeating actions a specific number of times

  • Performing body movements like tapping or snapping

Society frequently tosses around terms like "obsessed" or "OCD" in everyday life. However, obsessions and OCD go far beyond a fixation on a task or the desire to have a tidy home. OCD can severely impact your life and relationships and make it difficult to do regular, everyday activities. 

Research estimates that OCD affects approximately 2.3% of adults in the United States in their lifetime. 

What is GAD?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health disorder. If you have GAD, you struggle with anxiety more than average and have difficulty controlling your symptoms, which interfere with many aspects of life.

A little anxiety before speaking in public or meeting with a big client is normal. Chronic anxiety that makes you feel on edge throughout the entire day for several weeks at a time may indicate GAD. There are several different types of anxiety disorders.

Your doctor will diagnose you with generalized anxiety disorder if you have excessive worry and anxiety without specific symptoms of other types of anxiety disorders.

The link between OCD and GAD

OCD and GAD are among the mental health disorders where anxiety is a primary symptom. Other conditions that can cause anxiety symptoms to include: 

  • Panic disorder

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Social anxiety disorder

Each of these disorders may cause excessive worry and tension. They also have additional symptoms or characteristics that differentiate them, such as avoidance of people, places, situations, or disturbing memories. It’s possible to have a combination of two or more of these conditions simultaneously. 

How are OCD and anxiety different?

OCD and anxiety are closely related as both may involve intrusive and troublesome thoughts that can make everyday life more difficult. The main difference between the two conditions is the existence of compulsions in OCD. 

If you have GAD, you may experience similar intrusive thoughts to people with OCD. However, you won’t feel the need to perform rituals or compulsive behaviors to escape or control your anxiety as you would with OCD. 

Getting a diagnosis for OCD or GAD

Healthcare professionals diagnose OCD and GAD in a similar fashion with an evaluation. Some may feel comfortable diagnosing and treating OCD and GAD after talking about your symptoms, while others may refer you to a specialist for further evaluation.

GAD diagnosis

To get a GAD diagnosis from a primary care physician, you will typically undergo a physical exam, including blood and urine samples, to rule out other possible causes for anxiety. They may also ask you questions to get a better idea of your symptoms and provide you with a few treatment options to try. They may refer you to a specialist if you don't respond to initial treatments or lifestyle changes.

OCD diagnosis

To get an OCD diagnosis, your doctor may also conduct a physical exam to check for other possible conditions, and they may ask you questions about your symptoms and how they impact your life. In some cases, they may request your permission to talk to your friends or family members to understand your symptoms better. They may refer you to a specialist for further evaluation and to discuss treatment options. 

Are OCD and GAD treatments different?

Doctors treat OCD and GAD similarly, but there may be slight variations. It's also important to note that everyone is different, so what works for one person with GAD may not work for you. The same is true for OCD. Generally speaking, the treatment options for both GAD and OCD include:

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy typically involves discussing your thoughts and feelings with a trained healthcare professional. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one type of psychotherapy that can be effective for OCD and GAD. 

Your doctor may ask questions to help you better understand your thought process. They’ll also give you strategies to break thought cycles and redirect them when they become distressing. CBT for OCD may also include exposure and response prevention, encouraging you to face your fears in small and controlled ways.  

Medications

Doctors use medication to treat both conditions. For both GAD and OCD, the first type of medication they’ll typically prescribe is antidepressants. These can include fluoxetine, sertraline, or paroxetine. It may take some time to find the right drug and dose, and you may try several before finding the one that best alleviates your symptoms. 

Speak with your doctor if you notice any concerning side effects, and let them know if you want to come off antidepressants. Suddenly stopping antidepressants can create other concerning side effects, like anxiety, dizziness, nausea, and more. 

Current evidence³ shows a combination of medications and psychotherapy tends to be more helpful for controlling symptoms of mental health disorders than one or the other on its own. 

The lowdown

Although OCD and GAD aren't the same, the conditions share many similarities. If you think you have GAD, OCD, or both, it may be helpful to speak with your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. 

Both GAD and OCD can make everyday life more challenging for you and your loved ones. Working with healthcare professionals is the best way to begin your recovery journey.

Curious about clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

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