Differences Between Panic Disorder and OCD

OCD or Panic Disorder?. Getty Images Credit: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury

Panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are both classified as "anxiety disorders" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) — the manual mental health professionals use to guide them as they make a diagnosis. It is not uncommon for a person to be diagnosed with both of these disorders, which are marked by excessive worry and fear. However, OCD is a distinct disorder with its own set of criteria, symptoms, and treatment.

What Is OCD?

As the name implies, OCD is characterized by obsessions in thinking and compulsions in behavior. The DSM describes obsessions as relentless and invasive "thoughts, impulses or images" that are unsettling and disturbing beyond any heightened nervousness about everyday problems. Aware that these distressing thoughts are created by one’s own mind, a person will try to disregard them altogether or counteract them with different thoughts or behaviors.

Compulsions are identified as "repetitive behaviors or mental acts" that the individual feels obligated to do in order to prevent a feared incident or circumstance from occurring. These physical or mental actions are either extreme or not logically connected to what they are meant to avoid. For example, someone may have a fear that germs will cause them to become sick and die (obsession) if they do not repeatedly wash their hands throughout the day (compulsion).

Generally, a person with OCD is at some point aware that these obsessions and compulsions are extreme and unnecessary. However, the OCD sufferer will often remain preoccupied with them, spending a large amount of time thinking about the obsessions and acting out the compulsions to the point that their social- and work-related activities are negatively affected.

Treatment and How to Cope

Fortunately, there are treatment options and coping techniques that can help alleviate the symptoms of OCD. For further information, check out our site for OCD where you can find additional facts on symptoms, treatment and coping. Although OCD shares the common tie of anxiety, diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment for panic disorder differ.

Panic disorder, however, principally causes symptoms that include recurring panic attacks. These attacks are often described as intense fear accompanied by trembling, difficulty breathing, and sweating. Out of fear of experiencing another attack, many panic disorder sufferers will avoid certain situations and events. This fear and avoidance can lead to agoraphobia, a fear of places or situations that feel vulnerable, unsafe, or difficult to escape from.

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Article Sources
  • American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.
  • Rapee, R. M., Sanderson, W. C., McCauley, P. A., Di Nardo, P. A. “Differences in reported symptom profile between panic disorder and other DSM-III-R anxiety disorders” Behavioral Research & Therapy 1992 30: 45-52.