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OCD vs. generalized anxiety disorder: Differences explained

By October 10, 2023November 28th, 2023No Comments

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) share symptoms of unwanted thoughts that lead to anxiety and distress. Despite this, the two conditions have significant differences that help tell them apart.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) share similarities that can make it easy to confuse the conditions. This can lead to missed, delayed, or misdiagnosis of the conditions.

This article explores the differences between the two conditions and answers commonly asked questions about them.

How do OCD and GAD differ?

Symptoms of OCD

To receive an OCD diagnosis, a person with OCD must haveTrusted Source obsessions, compulsions, or both.

Obsessions are recurrent, unwanted, and persistent intrusive thoughts, urges, or images that cause distress or anxiety. They may attempt to ignore, suppress or neutralize them by performing a compulsion.

Compulsions are repetitive mental acts (such as praying or counting) or behaviors (such as checking and handwashing) that a person feels compelled to perform rigidly in response to the obsession.

These are generally time-consuming or cause significant distress or impairments in their relationships, work, and other areas of functioning.

Symptoms of GAD

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health disorder characterized by excessive and unrealistic fear or worry about everyday things.

For a diagnosis of GAD, a person must have excessive worry or anxiety occurring more days than not for at least 6 months. The person must find it challenging to control the worry and must have at least three of the following symptoms:

  • restlessness or feeling on edge
  • easily fatigued
  • mind going blank or difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • sleep disturbance

A person may also experience nonspecific body complaints such asTrusted Source:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • palpitations
  • shortness of breath

This typically leaves a person with a constant feeling of being overwhelmed and can cause impairments in impairments in their work, relationships, and other areas of functioning.

Is OCD an anxiety disorder?

The previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classified GAD and OCD as anxiety disorders.

In the DSM-5, experts separated OCD and grouped it with related disorders under a new classification called Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. The current version (DSM-5-TR) still maintains this separation.

Does treatment differ?

Both conditions generally respond well to treatment. Many of the treatments for each condition overlap.

Cognitive behavior therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is typically effective for both conditions.

It is an effective treatment for GAD, leading to reductions in worry. It has comparable effectsTrusted Source to medications. CBT is also the most effective psychotherapeutic method of treating OCD.

While both respond to CBT well, OCD treatment has a more specified treatment regimen, while treatments for anxiety disorders like GAD are broader and less specific. This includes:

  • Cognitive restructuring: This involves identifying one’s maladaptive thought patterns and challenging them.
  • Exposure therapy: Through imaginal exposure, this makes a person imagine a worst-case scenario or catastrophic outcome and then imagine them undergoing such an experience.
  • Mindfulness exercises: This trains a person to have a nonjudgmental and nonreactive awareness of the present moment to help them distance themselves from negative thoughts.

The most essential type of CBT for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP). This aims to restructure the mind and change one’s habit of compulsive behavior. It involves exposing the personTrusted Source to their fears and ha

How can a person tell if it is OCD or GAD?

While OCD and GAD share some features, several characteristics can help distinguish the two conditions.


While both conditions have unwanted, pervasive thoughts, people with OCD generally have a strong drive to engage in compulsions or rituals to prevent or lessen the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts.

While people with GAD have excessive worry, they do not typically engage in compulsive behaviors to alleviate their anxiety.

Thought patterns

Both conditions have anxiety and distress that root in persistent thought patterns.

Excessive worry is the central featureTrusted Source of GAD. The worries are often about real-life concerns like health, finances, family, or the future.

Compared with everyday worries (nonpathological anxiety), the concerns associated with GAD typically have the following characteristics:

  • excessive and significantly interferes with a person’s psychosocial functioning
  • more pervasive, pronounced, and distressing
  • lasts longer
  • occurs without triggers
  • accompanied by physical symptoms

Meanwhile, obsessions are the hallmark of OCD. These obsessive thoughts go beyond everyday worries. They may include content that can be considered odd, irrational, or even magical.

ving them resist the urge to perform a compulsion.

Read the rest of the original article on MedicalNewsToday.

If you are suffering from any types of OCD, GAD or related mental health issue, please see the information on all therapy options including Generalized Anxiety Treatment in NYC.

Barry J. Richman

Author Barry J. Richman

More posts by Barry J. Richman

Barry J. Richman MD Psychiatrist NY

Manhattan, NYC Psychiatrist
(212) 889-5463