OCD vs ADHD: How to Tell The Difference Between Them & Ways to Help Reduce Symptoms

OCD vs ADHD: How to Tell The Difference Between Them & Ways to Help Reduce Symptoms

"In individuals where this part of the brain is impaired, it can be difficult to remember things, make decisions, or transition from one task to another"

ADHD and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) have many overlapping symptoms and are said to affect the same part of the brain, but these conditions are not the same. ADHD causes a person to be inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive (or all of the above), while OCD is a condition that causes a person to have intrusive thoughts and perform repetitive behaviors. Find out more about how to know if you have ADHD or OCD and explore ways to help reduce symptoms. 

OCD vs ADHD Characteristics Compared 

Brain scans indicate that OCD and ADHD both “produce atypical activity” in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which regulates executive functions like habit forming, planning, and shifting attention.1 In individuals where this part of the brain is impaired, it can be difficult to remember things, make decisions, or transition from one task to another.

Though the conditions are not the same, they can both interfere with one’s academic, social, and career success. For instance, a person with ADHD may show up late to an important meeting because they lost track of time, while a person with OCD may show up late because their repetitive behaviors took up too much time. A person with ADHD may have trouble making friends because they impulsively interrupt during conversations or have trouble listening to other people. A person with OCD might have trouble making friends because their fear of “losing control” and doing or saying something inappropriate causes them to isolate. They may also have trouble listening to others because they are too consumed with the obsessions racing through their mind. 

Other overlapping symptoms include: 

  • Chronic stress, which may lead to anxiety or depression
  • Upset stomach
  • Sleep problems

OCD Symptoms

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, OCD is typically diagnosed by about age 19, often with an earlier age of onset in boys than in girls. In some cases, onset after age 35 does occur.2 Symptoms can be broken up into two categories: obsessions, or uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts, and compulsions, behaviors that the individual feels the need to repeat over and over. 

OCD obsessions can include: 

  • Fear of germs and diseases
  • Preoccupation with symmetry
  • Uncontrollable thoughts about sex, violence, or religion
  • Fear of “losing control” and shouting obscenities, stealing, or harming someone
  • Worry over losing things
  • Superstitious thoughts about numbers, colors, etc.  

OCD compulsions can include: 

  • Repeatedly washing hands to prevent contamination
  • Ordering and rearranging things a specific way 
  • Double-checking things like locks, lights, and appliances
  • Calling on loved ones repeatedly to ensure their safety
  • Motor tics like eye blinking, shrugging, facial grimacing; verbal tics like grunts, throat clearing, or burping

Double-checking if you’ve turned out the lights or washing your hands repeatedly doesn’t necessarily mean a person has OCD. In fact, frequent hand washing and fear of contamination have become somewhat normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when a person has difficulty controlling their thoughts and actions, even when excessive, and spends at least an hour a day consumed with these behaviors, OCD may be the cause.   

ADHD Symptoms 

Many people with ADHD are diagnosed during elementary school, but symptoms can appear as early as between the ages of three and six.3 Oftentimes, ADHD symptoms are mistaken for disciplinary problems or mental health issues, or they are missed entirely in children who are inattentive, primarily girls. Like OCD, symptoms can be broken down into two categories: inattentive and hyperactive.

ADHD inattentive symptoms include: 

  • Lack of focus
  • Easily distracted 
  • Trouble with organization and time management
  • Prone to making mistakes at work or school
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Tendency to lose items
  • Avoidance of tasks that require sustained effort

ADHD hyperactive/impulsive symptoms include:

  • Inability to sit still in quiet settings
  • Difficulty waiting one’s turn
  • Fidgeting and squirming
  • Excessive talking and interrupting
  • Prone to answering questions before asked or finishing other people’s sentences
  • Tendency to engage in risky behavior 

While many people experience inattention and restlessness occasionally, for people with ADHD these symptoms occur more frequently and with greater intensity, often interfering with one’s work and relationships. 

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OCD vs ADHD Causes Compared 

We know that OCD and ADHD affect the same area of the brain, but why? One answer is genetics. Family studies show that first-degree relatives of patients with OCD were more frequently affected by OCD than relatives of healthy control subjects. This is especially the case in early onset OCD. Similarly, familial studies have shown that the risk of ADHD among parents and siblings of children who had ADHD is increased starting at two-up to eightfold higher.4  

OCD and ADHD may also be caused or worsened by trauma, which subjects the body to chronic stress. Research shows that chronic stress can have an adverse impact on brain development in children. Parts of the brain related to fear, anxiety, and impulsivity may overproduce neural connections, while areas dedicated to reasoning, planning, and behavioral control may produce fewer neural connections. In addition, high levels of stress hormones can even cause “neuronal cell death,” especially in the prefrontal cortex, which is where ADHD and OCD are most active.5  

OCD Causes 

Though OCD and ADHD affect the prefrontal cortex of the brain, scans show different types of activity occurring. People with ADHD have very low activity in this region, while people with OCD have too much activity there.6 Besides neurological differences, OCD can also be learned by watching family members perform repetitive tasks or carry intense fears.7  

ADHD Causes 

Genetics seem to be a large risk factor for ADHD, but scientists are also looking into environmental links, such as exposure to lead, alcohol, and tobacco while in utero or at a young age; brain injuries may also be a cause according to the CDC.8

How to Reduce Symptoms for Both 

There are numerous pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to treat OCD and ADHD. Antidepressants are typically the first line of treatment for OCD, while stimulant drugs are widely prescribed for ADHD. Though many individuals find great success in taking medication, these drugs can cause a range of undesirable side effects, such as drowsiness, dry mouth, nervousness, headaches, and dizziness.  

Alternatively, there are holistic approaches that may help to greatly reduce symptoms without harsh chemicals or harmful side effects. These include behavioral changes such as: 

  • Following a healthy diet: A 2018 study on OCD and diet found that when subjects minimized their intake of processed foods and cut out additives like glutamate entirely, their OCD symptoms disappeared, even when those symptoms were unresponsive to prescription medication.9 Similarly, diet modifications can also help those with ADHD. Studies show that diets high in protein promote alertness in the brain, while carbohydrates do the opposite. Avoiding artificial colors and flavors can also reduce symptoms.
  • Getting adequate sleep: A 2017 study indicated that people with OCD who do not get adequate sleep tend to have a more difficult time the next day managing their OCD symptoms.10 Poor sleep can also aggravate ADHD symptoms, leading to either hyperactivity (“wired and tired”) or more difficulty paying attention from fatigue.11 Adults should aim to get at least seven hours of sleep each night and practice good sleep hygiene. 
  • Controlling screen time: Experts have found a link between “addictive technology use” and both ADHD and OCD, as well as mood disorders like anxiety and depression.12 To keep screens from worsening symptoms, electronic devices should be used sparingly and kept out of the bedroom so they do not interfere with sleep.
  • Practice mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness may involve deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress. Researchers have found that mindfulness meditation had “a significant and large effect” on OCD symptoms, helping subjects “let go” of unwanted thoughts and break the link between thought and action.13 Studies also indicate that mindfulness training results in greater cognition and attention as well as improvements in related anxiety symptoms.14

If you make the behavioral changes above and still find that you need more support, Brillia is another non-prescription option to consider. Designed to reduce symptoms of anxiety and ADHD, including inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, Brillia promotes a feeling of focus and clarity using targeted antibodies to the S100B protein. This protein is an important regulator of many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes, including enzyme activities, calcium homeostasis, and communication between neurons. Brillia targets this protein because almost all mental and neurological disorders as well as temporal stress-induced conditions are caused by a disturbance of the above-mentioned processes. By normalizing them, Brillia gently and impactfully reduces undesirable symptoms without any harmful side effects, risk of dependency, or contraindications with other medications or supplements.In fact, Brillia can be a great addition to ADHD medications that are working well, but cause anxiety as a side effect. Because there are no harmful interactions with other medications, Brillia can be added to the regimen to help control these secondary symptoms without having to add more harsh prescriptions to your regimen.

To maximize its success, Brillia works in tandem with the healthy lifestyle factors outlined in our Five Pillar methodology, combining neuroscience with behavioral science to provide an action plan that works.

Find out more about Brillia for Adults and Brillia for Children.

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References: 1https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/adhd-and-ocd, 2https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd, 3https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd, 4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4148591/, 5https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-and-trauma-overview-signs-symptoms/, 6https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2526239 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20354432, 7https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/facts.html, 8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859338/, 9https://psychcentral.com/ocd/ocd-and-sleep-quality, 10https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/sleep-problems, 11https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26999354/, 12https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18025249/, 13https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/mindfulness-and-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-for-ocd/, 14https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18025249/
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