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The Thin Line Between OCD and Panic Disorder: What You Need to Know

Panic Disorder Vs OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) impacts 1% to 3% of the population. One of its comorbidities is panic disorder (PD), although it’s not as common as other comorbidities. OCD and PD are two distinct mental health conditions that:

  • Maintain similarities
  • Can exist together and overlap
  • Can exist separately

Distinguishing between the two conditions will allow sufferers to find relief and positive ways to cope with their emotions and urges.

OCD and PD have similarities and differences that all sufferers should know and understand. Appropriate interventions for anyone experiencing these mental conditions, together or separately, require accurate recognition of the characteristics of OCD and panic disorder and how they vary.

Is OCD a Panic Disorder? Defining OCD and Its Characteristics

OCD and PD are similar yet different. From the definition of the two, we find:

Defining OCD

A mental health disorder where a person’s “obsessions” lead to compulsive, repetitive behaviors.

Defining PD

Panic disorder involves a person experiencing regular, repeated panic attacks, often for no reason at all.

Panic Disorder vs OCD: Overlapping Symptoms and Similarities

OCD sufferers have a 67% to 92% chance of being diagnosed with comorbid disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and others. Shared symptoms between panic disorder and OCD make it challenging to diagnose the condition and include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Weakness in the arms and legs
  • Sweaty palms
  • Rapid emotions
  • Disassociation
  • Shortness of breath

Often, an OCD episode will cause a person to go into a state of panic. Since PD causes intense fears and anxiety, a person with OCD will feel similar symptoms. Acute anxiety without a reason occurs in both conditions.

An OCD trigger can cause anxiety and panic, leading to a major impact on daily function and quality of life.

Panic disorder and OCD can cause a person to:

  • Develop coping behaviors
  • Try and avoid triggers, even if that means loss of daily function

For example, if a person experiences a panic attack after going to the store because they have a fear of germs, it can lead them to avoid going to the store. If the trigger occurs at a workplace, gym, or doctor’s office, the person may try to avoid the trigger, leading them to avoid going to work, scheduling doctor’s appointments, taking care of themselves, and so on.

Anxiety in both disorders is often the main contributing factor that impacts daily functioning and must be coped with in a positive, constructive manner.

Developing Specific Obsessions

Obsessions are challenging to understand because they can occur “out of the blue,” or they can be a result of a major event, such as a car accident. Genetics and hereditary factors can also contribute to OCD.

OCD And Panic Disorder

A person may develop specific obsessions for any reason:

  • Health: Health OCD can occur for seemingly no reason. A person may have heart palpitations one day and become obsessed with the thought of dying. The individual may repeatedly visit the doctor’s office, even if they’ve undergone testing and found that nothing indicates a health-related issue. These individuals have an illogical fear that they’re dying from a serious condition or may contract one.
  • Safety: A person with safety-seeking or safety-checking OCD experiences an intense fear of being unsafe. Perhaps the person left the gas pilot on one day for 5 minutes and now has extreme OCD tendencies that require them to repeatedly check the stove.
  • Contamination: Contamination OCD isn’t limited to fears of dirt and germs. A person may also obsess about household chemicals, bodily fluids, spoiled food, lead, asbestos, animals or pets, broken glass, and more. Compulsions may include excessive or ritualized hand washing, sterilizing things frequently, avoiding certain places, throwing things away, or changing clothes frequently.

Triggers or even internal thoughts can cause panic-like symptoms and extreme bouts of anxiety.

Differentiating OCD from Panic Disorder

OCD and PD are both anxiety disorders, and they both have overlapping symptoms. However, there are some significant differences between these disorders.

  • Individuals with OCD go through cycles of obsessions and compulsions. Intrusive thoughts lead to ritualistic behaviors to cope with anxiety and stress.
  • With PD, on the other hand, individuals suffer recurring panic attacks.

While individuals with OCD may experience panic attacks because of their obsessions, panic attacks are not a defining characteristic of the condition. It’s the obsession and associated rituals that define OCD.

Co-occurrence and Comorbidity of OCD and Panic Disorder

Research has found that up to 90% of patients with OCD also meet the criteria for at least one other psychiatric diagnosis. The most common comorbid psychiatric diagnoses are anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder.

Studies have found that OCD is linked to panic attacks. Individuals with OCD are at risk of developing panic attacks, and vice versa.

It’s not uncommon for people with PD to develop OCD as a coping mechanism and to avoid having future attacks. Individuals who experience frequent and intense panic attacks may perform rituals or routines to help ease their symptoms and emotional distress. 

Treatment for OCD and panic disorder are often similar, as both conditions are considered anxiety disorders.

Both conditions can also cause:

  • Significant mental distress
  • Impairment in professional and academic functioning
  • A strain on friendships and romantic relationships

These conditions are cyclical in nature, which is another reason why they often co-occur. A person with OCD will go through a cycle of intrusive fears and thoughts (known as obsessions) and then compulsions, which are rituals or routines they use to reduce anxiety and stress.

Panic attacks have a similar cycle. It starts with intrusive thoughts and fears that progress into panic attacks and compulsions to ease the anxiety and stress they cause.

Panic Disorder And OCD

Treatments for OCD and panic attacks typically involve:

  • Exposure-Response and Prevention (ERP), which is the most common treatment for these conditions. Individuals are gradually exposed to their triggers to reduce their associated fears and anxieties.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which teaches individuals how to alter their thought processes and, in turn, their behaviors.
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which helps patients learn how to accept stressful and challenging situations and the discomfort that comes with them without judgment.
  • Imaginal Exposure Therapy, which is an exposure therapy tool. Individuals write short stories involving their triggers or fears, allowing them to be “exposed” to their imagined situations.

In some cases, medication may also be prescribed to help patients cope with anxiety and stress.

Understanding the nature of PD and OCD paints a clearer picture of why these conditions co-occur.

Summing Up

If you think you may have PD, OCD, or both conditions, finding the right treatment is key. A psychiatrist can help. A professional evaluation can help you get a proper diagnosis and determine the best treatment option. Having an accurate diagnosis is an important first step in effective treatment planning.



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