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The difference between obsessive-compulsive disorder and worry

We all have worries, but what’s the difference between typical worry and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, explains.

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it’s the fourth most common mental illness. People with OCD experience unwanted, recurring thoughts and images (obsessions) that lead them to take certain actions (compulsions).

“People with OCD have compulsive behaviors they can’t seem to regulate and a sense of unease that sometimes manifests as stress and anxiety,” Buttimer says. “They feel a need to control their circumstances.”

A well-known example of OCD is a preoccupation with germs and frequent, repeated handwashing. Other examples include checking, counting and seeking approval from others. For example, someone may repeatedly check to ensure their doors are locked.

Not performing an activity can cause significant anxiety and fear, such as believing they or a loved one will be harmed if they don’t do a certain task.

How OCD can affect your quality of life

Thoughts and behaviors related to OCD can:

  • Be time-consuming.

  • Cause significant anxiety.

  • Disrupt your daily life, affecting work, school and relationships.

“When you have obsessive thoughts, you may lack clarity and creativity in your life,” Buttimer says. “Your brain and body are in a constant state of fight-flight-freeze, which can cause inflammation in the body.”

What causes OCD?

“Some people are born with a predilection toward anxiety that manifests into OCD,” she says. “Sometimes, it can occur after a trauma or tragedy.”

OCD affects people of all ages, genders, races and backgrounds. Symptoms often start in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.

“Every diagnosis is on a continuum,” Buttimer says. “Some people have a few OCD symptoms, but don’t meet the full criteria for OCD.”

Treatment options for OCD

Psychotherapy and medication are common treatments for OCD. Buttimer also says more research is coming out about the benefits of complementary techniques like tapping (emotional freedom technique), meditation, journaling, tai chi and yoga. She says scripting - a form of journaling - may also be helpful.

“Scripting is writing your life script,” Buttimer says. “You think through how your day will go and what you’re capable of. You might write, ‘I see myself moving through the world today with ease and being able to eat my food in a manner that isn’t disruptive.’”

She also notes that while some people require medication after their diagnosis, they don’t necessarily have to remain on medication for the rest of their lives.

“It takes time to get better, and your symptoms won’t disappear overnight, even on medication,” she says.

What to talk to your health care provider about OCD

OCD can be debilitating. Buttimer recommends talking to your health care provider if you feel a great sense of unease or can't function optimally throughout your day.

“Give yourself space and grace,” she says. “A lot of people are hard on themselves and think they did something wrong, but many times, it’s a neurological condition.”

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