Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that leads to a pattern of obsessive thoughts and behaviors. The condition is widely misunderstood as it is liberally used to describe excessively organized, neat, or perfectionist people.
People with OCD, however, experience recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions). While these symptoms are not always a cause for concern, OCD can cause significant distress if it begins to interfere in daily life.
Attempting to ignore or stop obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior can have the opposite effect, leading to increased distress and anxiety.
Diagnosing OCD can be difficult, as it often coexists and shares symptoms with other mental conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Symptoms of OCD
OCD typically includes both obsessions and compulsions, but it’s possible to have only one or the other.
Symptoms of Obsession
An obsession is an uncontrollable and recurring thought, typically a fear, that can cause stress. Obsessions often center around a theme, including any of the following:
- Fear of dirt or germs. People with this obsession may fear touching items other people have touched or feel the need to wash their hands excessively.
- Extreme need for order. People with this obsession may feel stressed when objects are out of place and may be unable to carry on with their day until things are arranged in a particular manner.
- Fear of hurting yourself or someone else. People with this type of obsession may worry that they will harm themselves or others, even if they have no violent tendencies or intentions to do so.
- Fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. People with OCD sometimes have an extreme fear of making mistakes, causing them to pull away from social settings or seek constant reassurance from peers.
- Fear of embarrassment. People with OCD may worry that they will behave poorly in public.
- Fear of troubling thoughts. People with this type of obsession may have uncontrollable thoughts about violent or distressing situations, frequently involving death, sex, or religion.
Symptoms of Compulsion
A compulsion is a ritualistic or frequently repeated action. Some compulsions become so regular that they are completed absentmindedly. Like obsessions, compulsions often revolve around a theme. Common compulsions include:
- Washing or cleaning. People with OCD may find themselves washing their hands or bathing more than is necessary.
- Checking. People with this compulsion may feel the need to check that they’ve turned the stove off or locked the door multiple times over before feeling satisfied that they did.
- Counting. People with this compulsion may find themselves counting to themselves or repeating a specific sequence of numbers out loud.
- Order. People with this compulsion may feel the need to arrange things in a particular order or eat foods in a specific order.
- Collecting or hoarding. Some people with OCD may excessively purchase items they don’t need but refuse to get rid of anything.
Signs of OCD
Recognizing OCD can be difficult. People with OCD often fail to realize that their obsessions or compulsions are excessive when they become a regular part of their daily routine. Even if they don’t know it, their obsessions and compulsions may take up time and interfere with performance at school, work, or in social settings.
Signs of OCD often overlap with other conditions, including other anxiety disorders and ADHD. OCD often coexists with ADHD, making it difficult to differentiate between the two.
Further, symptoms of OCD can start off small and grow into obsessions or compulsions over time, making it difficult to notice their onset.
Many people have rituals or obsessive tendencies without having OCD. If you can think logically about your obsessions or compulsions and control them, it’s less likely that you have OCD.
Risk Factors for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Like many anxiety disorders, OCD has no single root cause. It can be triggered by several factors, including a personal crisis, abuse, or another traumatic event like the death of a loved one.
OCD is most commonly found in teens and young adults. People with a family history of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are also at greater risk of developing OCD.
OCD is often found in people with other existing conditions, such as any of the following:
- Anxiety disorders
- Tourette syndrome
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Certain personality disorders
Treatment for OCD
Because symptoms of OCD can overlap with those of other mental health conditions, diagnosing OCD can be tricky. Often, another mental health condition like ADHD or anxiety may be present alongside OCD.
Diagnosing OCD typically involves:
- A physical exam to check if your symptoms stem from an underlying health condition
- Blood tests to check for nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, thyroid function, and the presence of any drugs or alcohol in your system
- A psychological test or evaluation to help give a clearer picture of your fears, obsessions, and compulsions
Like many mental conditions, OCD has no cure. However, several treatment options can help limit symptoms of OCD, including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This type of therapy can help you recognize obsessions and compulsions when they occur and develop strategies to replace troublesome thought patterns with productive ones.
- Exposure and Response Prevention. This type of treatment involves exposure to the things that trigger your obsessions or compulsions to help you develop better ways to respond to them.
- Medication. If necessary, your doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe medication, often antidepressants, to help with OCD symptoms.
If you think you might have OCD, speak with a doctor or psychiatrist. Even if you don’t have OCD, you may discover another condition like ADHD or generalized anxiety disorder is responsible for your symptoms.