Is it Anxiety or OCD?

Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are two mental health conditions that are often misunderstood and sometimes confused with each other. While both conditions can cause significant distress and interfere with daily life, they differ in terms of their symptoms, causes and treatment options. This article explores the differences between anxiety and OCD and provides guidance on how to identify and manage these conditions.

The Basics of Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal and necessary emotion that helps us respond to potential threats or dangers. However, when it becomes excessive and persistent, it can interfere with our functioning and negatively impact our quality of life.

People with anxiety often experience excessive and unrealistic worry or fear about everyday situations or circumstances. Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Increased heart rate or palpitations
  • Sweating or trembling
  • Feeling tense or irritable
  • Panic attacks

Anxiety can be caused by biological, psychological or environmental factors. Some people are predisposed to anxiety due to genetics or brain chemistry, while others may develop it due to stressful life events, trauma or negative thought patterns.

Anxiety can be treated with various interventions, including medication, therapy or lifestyle changes. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a particularly effective approach for managing anxiety, as it helps individuals identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts and behaviors.

The Basics of OCD

OCD is a chronic and disabling mental health condition that affects roughly 1-2% of the general population. It is characterized by persistent and intrusive thoughts, images or impulses (obsessions) that create significant distress, as well as repetitive or ritualistic behaviors (compulsions) that are performed to alleviate anxiety or prevent harm.

People with OCD experience distressing and unwanted thoughts or urges that can be difficult to control. Some common obsessions include:

  • Fear of contamination or germs
  • Unwanted sexual or violent thoughts
  • Excessive concern for symmetry or order
  • Fear of causing harm or making mistakes

To reduce anxiety or prevent harm, individuals with OCD may engage in ritualistic or compulsive behaviors, such as:

  • Excessive cleaning or hand-washing
  • Repetitive checking or counting
  • Compulsive praying or mental rituals
  • Arranging or ordering objects in a particular way

OCD can be caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and cognitive factors. Like anxiety, it can be treated with various interventions, including medication, therapy and lifestyle changes. One effective approach for managing OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a form of CBT that involves gradually exposing individuals to feared situations or objects without engaging in compulsive behaviors.

Differences between Anxiety and OCD

While anxiety and OCD share some similarities, they are distinct conditions that often require different approaches to treatment. The main differences between anxiety and OCD include:

  • Anxiety is characterized by excessive and unrealistic worry or fear, while OCD is characterized by intrusive and distressing thoughts or impulses.
  • Anxiety is often triggered by specific events or situations, while OCD can occur without any apparent trigger.
  • Anxiety is often treated with medication or therapy alone, while OCD typically requires a combination of medication and therapy (particularly ERP).
  • The compulsions in OCD are often driven by a need to prevent harm or reduce anxiety, while with anxiety disorders, the behaviours themselves do not necessarily have a logical end goal in the same way.

How to Identify and Manage Anxiety and OCD

If you are struggling with anxiety or OCD, it is important to seek support from a qualified mental health professional. They can help you identify your symptoms, develop a treatment plan and provide ongoing support and guidance.

Some general strategies for managing anxiety and OCD may include:

  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation.
  • Engaging in regular exercise or physical activity.
  • Sticking to a routine sleep and eating schedule.
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol, which can worsen anxiety and OCD symptoms.
  • Identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts or beliefs.
  • Gradually exposing yourself to feared situations or objects while resisting the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors.
  • Using medication as prescribed by a mental health professional.

The Bottom Line

Anxiety and OCD are two distinct mental health conditions that can cause significant distress and interfere with daily life. While they share some similarities, they differ in terms of their symptoms, causes and treatment options. If you are struggling with anxiety or OCD, seek support from a qualified mental health professional who can help you develop an individualized treatment plan and provide ongoing support and guidance.


1. What are the main differences between anxiety and OCD?

Anxiety is a general feeling of worry or unease, while OCD is a specific type of anxiety disorder characterized by unwanted thoughts, urges, or repetitive behaviors. Anxiety can usually be managed with relaxation techniques or therapy, while OCD often requires a combination of therapy and medication.

2. How can I tell if my symptoms are caused by anxiety or OCD?

If you are experiencing unwanted thoughts, urges, or compulsive behaviors that interfere with your daily life, it may be a sign of OCD. On the other hand, if you are feeling generally anxious but are not experiencing specific intrusive thoughts or behaviors, it may be anxiety. It’s important to talk to a mental health professional to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

3. Can anxiety and OCD co-occur?

Yes, it’s possible for someone to have both anxiety and OCD simultaneously. In fact, OCD is often considered a type of anxiety disorder. In these cases, it’s important to address both anxiety and OCD symptoms in treatment to achieve the best outcomes.


1. Abramowitz, J. S., Tolin, D. F., & Street, G. P. (2001). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression: A meta-analysis of controlled studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(5), 683-703.

2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

3. Rachman, S. (2013). Theoretical issues in obsessive-compulsive disorder and related problems. In S. Rachman (Ed.), Obsessive-compulsive disorder (3rd ed., pp. 3-27). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.