What’s the difference between anxiety vs OCD? While both mental health conditions involve repetitive worrying, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often engage in unwanted and repetitive behavior in response to their worry. People with anxiety, however, tend to overthink their worry, but don’t act in specific responsive manners.

Continue reading to learn more about the key differences between OCD and anxiety. We’ll look at how to know if you have either of these common yet treatable conditions and how to get the best help dealing with your symptoms.

Key Differences Between the Two

The key distinction between OCD vs anxiety is that people with OCD experience repetitive thoughts, mental images, urges, or sensations that cause intense nervousness. It doesn’t stop there, though. Beyond that, they engage in repetitive behavior to try to distract their minds from these intrusive, disruptive thoughts.

For example, someone with OCD might be very afraid of contracting a disease or infection. To try and cope, they may wash their hands more than 100 times a day, or they may go out of their way to avoid contact with others.

Comparatively, while someone with anxiety might also worry a lot about contracting an infection or disease, they generally wouldn’t feel the need to wash their hands more than “normal” to ensure proper hygiene. They’d also probably still be fine shaking someone else’s hand.

Basically, the key difference between anxiety and OCD is the behavior (compulsion) we see in OCD. The mental or physical acts someone adapts to try and chase away their repetitive undesired thought (obsession) are a significant and main identifier in OCD.


Thinking patterns in OCD vs anxiety are unique. People with other anxiety disorders typically worry about realistic, possible concerns, while someone with OCD may likely experience an unrealistic or impossible obsession.

In general, those living with anxiety tend to worry about somewhat more appropriate topics, although the intensity of their anxiety is obviously excessive. Someone with anxiety may also worry about seemingly trivial matters and everyday stressors, but to a much greater extent than others. 

OCD thought patterns are characterized by recurring, unwanted, and uncontrollable thoughts that someone just can’t escape.


Behavioral patterns in anxiety vs OCD are markedly different in a few important ways. While anxiety disorders are typically characterized by excessive worry, OCD is marked by unwanted thoughts that lead to compulsive mental or physical reactions.

  • A person with an anxiety disorder will experience excessive worry, but not engage in compulsive behavior to reduce their anxiety. 
  • A person with OCD, however, will use repetitive, typically unhelpful behaviors to try and thwart the obsessive thought they have. They usually, but not always, know they’re acting in an irrational manner.

“Both OCD and anxiety are characterized by unwanted thoughts, however, in OCD, these unwanted thoughts lead to unwanted actions. Typically, if you only experience anxiety, you will not turn your thoughts into actions. You’ll tend to overthink only.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

Is OCD a Type of Anxiety?

OCD and anxiety are related mental health conditions. In the past, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) classified obsessive-compulsive behavior as one of several types of anxiety disorders. Then, in 2013, the APA designated OCD as its own separate and unique mental health condition.

“OCD is a type of anxiety that involves unwanted thoughts that are then followed by obsessive behaviors or repetitions of those thoughts. For example, if a person thinks that something will happen if they don’t touch their left elbow, they’ll do it once, and then additional times, often thinking they haven’t done it yet, or that once wasn’t enough.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

It wasn’t that long ago that OCD was fairly neglected in terms of research and studies, as it was considered just a type of anxiety disorder. Now that it’s recognized as a common, highly disabling yet treatable disorder of the brain, with its own diagnosis, our understanding continues to advance, thus improving OCD treatments available. 

One key reason for this reclassification is that brain chemicals in people with OCD vs anxiety are significantly different. For example, we understand that people with OCD often have low levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which is largely responsible for mood and sleep regulation.

How to Know if You Have OCD or Anxiety

Still wondering what the difference between OCD and anxiety is? Considering how common it is for OCD symptoms to overlap with other psychological disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), it’s normal to wonder. Symptom overlap can also potentially make anxiety and OCD diagnosis tricky. Although uncommon, some people do have both OCD and GAD simultaneously.

Both certain types of anxiety disorders and OCD are long-term mental health conditions, marked by excessive worry, intrusive thoughts, and persistent rumination. It can be challenging to figure out which, if either, of these conditions you may be experiencing. It’s important to understand that only a qualified doctor or mental healthcare professional can make an accurate diagnosis.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the symptoms of each of these conditions.

OCD Symptoms

While OCD symptoms and anxiety symptoms are similar, OCD does have some unique markers that typically aren’t experienced in people with anxiety disorders, including:

  • An attempt to neutralize, replace, or suppress intrusive thoughts
  • Repetitive thoughts stemming from unrealistic ambiguities
  • Indulging in irrational, ritualistic behaviors to cope with anxiety
  • Physical symptoms may or may not occur

People who have OCD generally tend to understand that their ritualistic behaviors are problematic. That is, most know their obsessions and compulsions are irrational and serve very little, if any, good purpose. Yet despite this, they still feel compelled to act, and often believe if they don’t, dreadful things will happen.

Anxiety Symptoms

Reviewing some of the common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can also help you differentiate between OCD and anxiety.

  • No ritualistic behavior
  • Involves at least 3 physical symptoms (nervousness, sense of doom, rapid heart rate or breathing, trembling or sweating, feeling weak, unable to concentrate) 
  • Repeatedly examining thoughts
  • Persistent worrying
  • Constantly thinking/over-thinking in an attempt to problem-solve

Now that you understand the distinctions between OCD and anxiety, you might have a clearer idea if you need a psychological evaluation. 

Remember that OCD, GAD, and similar disorders are common. There’s no reason to feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment about experiencing one of these treatable mental health conditions.

Finding Help for OCD or Anxiety

Understanding the difference between OCD and anxiety is imperative if you believe you have one of these conditions. The nuances between OCD vs anxiety are intricate and can be difficult to accurately diagnose.

If you identify with any of the symptoms listed above, an excellent first step is to reach out to a doctor or a mental healthcare professional in your community. Keep in mind, self-diagnosis is rarely helpful and, in some cases, can even be harmful. 

A subtype of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, is accepted as a first-line treatment for OCD, GAD, and other similar conditions. These types of psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) do not involve pharmaceuticals. Though for some people, a medication used in conjunction with therapy for OCD or therapy for anxiety can be a more effective treatment.

Psychotherapy teaches you how to stay in touch with your thoughts, sensations, urges, and emotions as they develop, so you can remain in better control of them. Whether you have anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, developing coping skills is invaluable for long-term symptom management. Knowing how to effectively manage your OCD or anxiety symptoms means you can get back to a productive, healthy way of life. With online therapy from Talkspace, you can get the help you need today. 

Medically reviewed by: Meaghan Rice, PsyD., LPC

Reviewed On: June 9, 2022