Interviewed by: Alexander Perez, Social Media & Multimedia Manager 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) affected 1.2% of adults in the U.S. in the past year alone. OCD affects approximately 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children in the U.S. Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Over 40 million adults, 19.1%, in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, approximately 7% of children aged 3-17 experience issues with anxiety each year. Most people develop symptoms before age 21.”

Understandably, those numbers may be shocking, and yet there are reasons to be optimistic. People are talking about mental health more than ever and the stigmatization often associated with seeking treatment is lessening in many communities. For those of us who are not clinical professionals, there may be questions about specific symptoms or diagnoses for which you’re seeking answers. We dive into a few frequently asked questions about OCD and complex anxiety in this interview, such as:

What are obsessive compulsive disorder and complex anxiety? How do these diagnoses impact individuals and their families? Are they treatable? 

Dealing with anxiety can make everyday life challenging. For anyone looking for answers or potential treatment, the first step is seeking information. That’s why we sat down with Compass Health Center’s very own Jennifer Smith, LCPC, Director of OCD & Complex Anxiety Program — Northbrook, to unpack OCD and complex anxiety and shed light on some of the lesser-known facts about these mental health diagnoses.

*The interview below has been transcribed and edited for clarity. 

Interviewer: What are OCD and complex anxiety?

Jennifer Smith:

OCD is characterized by experiencing distressing, unwanted, and intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that are then followed by a behavior that is designed to get rid of the distress or provide relief associated with those thoughts, images, or urges. Those behaviors are often called compulsions or rituals. This is the OCD cycle — we experience anxiety, we want to get rid of that anxiety, but the way we do that typically keeps us stuck. Complex anxiety refers to the idea that many people struggle with more than one anxiety disorder. Our OCD & Complex Anxiety program treats OCD as well as all anxiety disorders. Additionally, we treat trichomania (hair-pulling) and excoriation (skin-picking).

Interviewer: What are other complex anxieties besides OCD?

Jennifer Smith:

Anxiety disorders can include panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety, phobias, generalized anxiety, illness anxiety, and separation anxiety.

Interviewer: What is panic disorder?

Jennifer Smith:

Panic Disorder is when someone has recurrent unexpected panic attacks that come on suddenly. Then, they also experience either recurrent worry or concern about having additional panic attacks, or they change their life in a way that is not effective for them in an effort to avoid having additional panic attacks.

Interviewer: What are signs or symptoms of panic disorder?

Jennifer Smith:

Panic attacks are characterized by an intense rush of physical symptoms that come on suddenly and can reach a peak within a few minutes. Panic attacks typically last for about 20 to 25 minutes and they can recur throughout the day or the night. Common symptoms of a panic attack can include having a pounding or racing heart, feeling shaky, feeling shortness of breath, feeling dizzy, feeling detached from our body or mind and/or feeling fearful of losing control.

Someone struggling with panic disorder might notice that they’ve altered their life in a way that is not really working for them. Common examples of this might be avoiding going out in public, particularly during busy times, or changing your social routine where you’re avoiding things that you weren’t avoiding before, such as canceling plans with friends or avoiding exercising. Another common experience is that somebody with panic disorder might notice that they are going to the ER thinking that they are having a heart attack or a physical health issue and being turned away due to being told that their symptoms are based in anxiety.

Two women in conversation

Interviewer: What is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

Jennifer Smith:

This is a good question. Panic attacks are defined by the experience of intense, distressing physical symptoms, whereas anxiety can accompany uncomfortable physical symptoms but is best characterized by experiencing fear and worry about a variety of situations. In our program, we try to refrain from using the term anxiety attack to help people differentiate between a panic attack and their experience of anxiety because anxiety itself is not attacking us even though it can be very uncomfortable. Anxiety is trying to protect us from danger, and we don’t want to perpetuate the idea that anxiety should be feared.

Interviewer: What are some signs of OCD and complex anxiety?

Jennifer Smith:

I think the biggest diagnosable sign of something like OCD or an anxiety disorder is the feeling that fear is in the driver’s seat of your life. If somebody notices that they are making decisions out of fear, avoiding situations out of fear, or doing something over and over again out of fear, that is an indicator that you may be struggling with OCD or anxiety disorder. Another common symptom is having a difficult time sitting with the unknown. For all of us, uncertainty is scary, and having a difficult time tolerating that might indicate an issue with anxiety.

Interviewer: When is panic disorder diagnosable?

Jennifer Smith:

Panic disorder is diagnosable when somebody experiences recurrent unexpected panic attacks and either has significant concern or worries about having additional attacks or has modified their life in a way to try and avoid having additional attacks. If your life is being altered because of these attacks, then that may be an indicator that you may be diagnosed with panic disorder.

Interviewer: What else do you think would be helpful for people to know when it comes to anxiety and OCD?

Jennifer Smith:

The one thing that I wish everybody knew and felt is that there is nothing to be ashamed about when seeking mental health treatment. Just like our physical health, we all have our own unique mental health. Our society has struggled historically to understand and support people who struggle with their mental health, however, society is continually improving its understanding and support of mental health issues.

Whether it be coming to Compass or whether it be with an outside therapist or a support group, I would really encourage people to seek that support. Particularly with anxiety, we often have that “I just need to pick myself up by my bootstraps” mentality and that isn’t necessarily effective for us and doesn’t necessarily feel good. If you are struggling with your mental health, I would encourage you to seek support because you deserve it — we all deserve it.

LEARN MORE ABOUT COMPASS OCD & COMPLEX ANXIETY PHP/IOP PROGRAMS, In-Person or Through Compass Virtual

Did you learn something? We hope you did, but if you still have questions or want to learn more about treatment for OCD and complex anxiety, contact us to speak with an intake specialist. Conversations around mental health can be difficult, and our expert clinicians help to make them more approachable.