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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and OCD – Understanding the Differences

Posted By: Advancing Care

Medically reviewed by Sherya Nagula, MD

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have many overlapping symptoms.

Both can manifest with intrusive unwanted thoughts, restlessness or unease, and a persistent sense of tension or discomfort. They both involve excessive fear that can be very debilitating.

However, the key differences between the two diagnoses are the content of the overthinking, along with the actions, or behaviors, of the individual to eliminate those thoughts.

Here, we’ll illuminate the major distinctions between these two conditions, and discuss the salient treatment goals for each one.

Anxious Woman Sitting

Defining GAD

GAD is a common human experience; a natural response to stress or danger that comes and goes throughout one’s life: fight or flight. It also can lead to avoiding that same task altogether, causing us to freeze.

However, when GAD becomes too overwhelming and/or chronically untreated, it can evolve into a more severe mental health disorder that might not go away by itself.

Key facts about GAD include:

  • Physical symptoms: increased heart rate, muscle tension, headache, restlessness, or insomnia.
  • Emotional symptoms: excessive worry, fear and irritability.
  • Triggers: stressors ranging from work pressure to social situations.
  • Response: anxious thoughts, avoidance and heightened vigilance.

Understanding OCD:

While OCD is classified as a type of anxiety disorder, it’s a slightly different mental health condition.

Unlike anxiety, which is a broad category, OCD is characterized by intrusive, unwanted thoughts about specific topics (obsessions) followed by repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions).

Key facts about OCD include:

  • Intrusive thoughts: that the individual often knows are irrational or odd/bizarre in nature.
  • Compulsions: rituals, such as excessive hand washing, checking or counting, to temporarily alleviate their anxiety symptoms.
  • Interference with daily life: negative impact on relationships, work, hygiene, and overall quality of life.

Treatment options

Acknowledging the differences in these conditions is the first step toward effective management.

Treatment for GAD often involves therapy, lifestyle modifications and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has shown particular efficacy in addressing the underlying thought patterns associated with GAD and breaking the negative cycle on one’s emotions and behaviors.

Treatment can look similar for OCD, but exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is considered the gold standard.

ERP is a specialized form of CBT that specifically targets impairing OCD symptoms.  It helps
individuals confront their obsessive fears and manage the resultant compulsions, which then helps decrease their overall anxiety. Certain medications may also be prescribed, or both therapy and medications might be necessary if symptoms are severe.

Don't hesitate to get the help you need. A national healthcare magazine recognized WMCHealth for having one the nation’s “great psychiatry and behavioral health programs” as we offer a full spectrum of behavioral health inpatient, outpatient, community and emergency care services for individuals and families at WMCHealth facilities across the Hudson Valley. WMCHealth.org