Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that typically presents during adolescence or early adulthood. Those who suffer from OCD have unwanted and overwhelming thoughts, feelings, and fears that compel them to perform specific activities. Responses to obsessive urges often become rituals that the sufferer must perform to get through day-to-day life. While performing the rituals temporarily satisfies obsessions, anxiety will recur and persist if the condition is left untreated.[1]

Definition of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness characterized by anxiety related to unreasonable thoughts or fears (obsessions). In response to these obsessions, sufferers are driven to perform ritualistic, compulsive acts (compulsions). Attempting to ignore or rationalize the compulsion only serves to increase anxiety.[2]

Signs of OCD

Someone who has OCD often appears overly anxious and/or paranoid. He or she may avoid contact with others out of fear of germs, or may deal with social awkwardness due to similarly irrational concerns. Some sufferers may be exceptionally irritable, and possibly prone to violence. It is theorized that there may be a relation between OCD and Tourette’s syndrome,[1] and suffers of both conditions may exhibit similar behaviors, such as nervous ticks and the urge to inappropriately shout obscenities.[2] Sufferers typically realize their behavior is unreasonable. Shame and embarrassment often contributes to their anxiety.

Symptoms of OCD

Obsessions often have themes. Sufferers may be obsessed with having items organized, avoiding germs, or other common considerations, taken to an unreasonable level. Some people with OCD fixate on aggressive or sexual fantasies, which can lead to legal trouble and/or physical harm. Obsessive impulses persist even when the sufferer knows they are unnecessary and is trying to ignore them.[2] Those suffering from OCD may have visualizations related to the obsession. They also may be anxious, and fearful of social situations. Some sufferers may cope with OCD by pulling hair or picking at their skin.[2]

In performing compulsive acts, OCD sufferers may count and calculate often, check on objects or people unnecessarily, and seek reassurance from others.[2] Symptoms often start out minor, and the sufferer may appear quirky or anxious, but not necessarily mentally ill. Eventually, OCD begins to impact the sufferer’s quality of life and relationships. This is the point at which treatment should be sought.

Causes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

There is no identifiable cause of OCD. It is theorized that sufferers may be genetically predisposed, but specific genetic components have yet to be determined.[2] Other theories suggest that chemical imbalances in the brain may be responsible. Learned habits that sometimes have emotional connections may contribute to OCD.

Effects of OCD

The disorder itself is not known to cause physical harm or progress into other types of mental illness, but actions taken in response to obsessions may be harmful.[1] For example, a person obsessed with picking his or her skin may develop infections, and a person with a sexual obsession may have trouble maintaining healthy relationships. The disorder tends to become more severe as it is left untreated. Increasing levels of related stress and anxiety can affect everything from the sufferer’s ability to hold a job, to the strength of his or her immune system.

OCD sometimes occurs in conjunction with eating disorders, and may require treatment before the eating disorder can be cured. Some sufferers may turn to substance abuse, self-harm, or suicide in their attempts to cope with OCD.

Treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

For OCD to be diagnosed, a sufferer must have obsessions and compulsions that interfere with his or her daily life. He or she must also be aware that his or her behavior in response to obsessions is unreasonable. The obsessions must be persistent, stressful, and typically unrelated to real-life challenges. Compulsions must be repetitive acts that are performed to reduce stress resulting from the obsessions. Other conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression, may have similar symptoms to those of OCD, but require different types of treatment.

Once OCD has been diagnosed, cognitive behavioral therapy is often recommended. This type of therapy exposes the sufferer to the obsession, and helps him or her control responses and avoid the compulsion.[1] Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs can help the sufferer respond better to therapy, and may be prescribed long-term for ongoing treatment.


  1. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. (March 7, 2012). PubMed Health. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001926/
  2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/DS00189

By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor

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