Differences Between Panic Disorder and OCD

They're separate types of anxiety disorders

Woman stressed out in front of computer

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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's not uncommon for a person to be diagnosed with both of these disorders, which are each 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-5 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, someone with OCD will try to disregard them altogether or counteract them with different thoughts or behaviors—a strategy that can cause them to come back even more. 

Compulsions are identified as repetitive behaviors or mental acts that someone 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.

A person with OCD may have a fear that germs will cause them to become sick and die (obsession) if they don't 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, he or she 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.

Disorders That Co-Exist With OCD

It's very common for people with OCD to also be diagnosed with another disorder (known as "comorbid" disorders).

According to BeyondOCD.org, an organization that raises awareness of the disorder, 90 percent of the adults who reported OCD at some point in their lives also had at least one other comorbid condition, including anxiety disorders like panic disorder.

Panic disorder 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.

OCD

  • Recurring obsessions and compulsions

  • Extensive rituals to reduce anxiety caused by obsessions

Panic Disorder

  • Recurring panic attacks

  • Avoidance out of fear of having another attack

Treatment and How to Cope

There are effective treatment options and coping techniques for alleviating the symptoms of OCD and panic disorder, and they frequently overlap. For instance, both disorders are commonly treated with a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which target a neurotransmitter called serotonin that helps decrease anxiety.

Likewise, cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that helps change a person’s faulty or negative thinking and assists in shifting unhealthy behaviors, is a recognized treatment for OCD and panic disorder. A trained mental health professional can diagnose and provide appropriate treatment for both conditions.

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