Guide to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Definition, Symptoms, and Management Tips
In popular media, obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is often depicted as a set of quirky traits. People who live with OCD know it differently. OCD is a complex and serious condition, and in extreme cases it can be debilitating.
Learning more about OCD—its indications, types, and treatments—can help people with OCD control their symptoms. Explore resources that you can use to better understand and manage OCD.
What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive compulsive disorder is a chronic condition that’s characterized by unwanted thoughts that occur over and over again (obsessions), and repeated thoughts or behaviors used in an attempt to control obsessions (compulsions).
Many people experience obsessions or compulsions at some point in life. This does not mean that they have OCD. A person who has OCD experiences obsessions and compulsions that consume much of their time, gets in the way of their wants and needs, and/or causes serious distress.
Usually, people who have OCD know that their obsessive thoughts are illogical, but find it impossible or nearly impossible to resist the urge to perform the compulsion that quells the thought.
Symptoms of OCD can vary widely and may include:
- Unwanted thoughts that are not easily dismissed
- Struggles to fall asleep at night or perform well at work or school due to unwanted thoughts
- Relationship struggles due to constant reassurance seeking
- Fear of going in public due to thoughts about acting inappropriately
- Difficulty tolerating situations with an uncertain outcome
- Performing compulsions like following strict routines, repeating parts of a routine (or the entire routine) if a portion is deemed imperfect, handwashing and cleaning to the point that skin becomes raw, counting, or repeatedly checking for safety (such as checking to make sure the stove is turned off repeatedly)
Obsessions in OCD are different from what people colloquially refer to as obsessions in day to day life. While someone may say that they’re obsessed with a new song or a new romantic interest, this is different from the thoughts that a person with OCD experiences.
Often, OCD-related obsessions lead to ideas of catastrophic outcomes. While a person who does not have OCD may have a momentary thought about touching a doorknob and not washing their hands to prevent illness, a person who has OCD may touch a doorknob and be unable to stop thinking about whether they’ll get sick, leading them to perform compulsions (washing their hands for a certain length of time, sanitizing the doorknob, or calling their doctor for reassurance that they won’t get sick).
Most people experience unwanted or intrusive thoughts occasionally, but for a person with OCD, these thoughts don’t easily go away. OCD thoughts cause extreme anxiety that feels unbearable and makes it difficult to function at a high level.
Types of OCD
There are several different types of OCD themes. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most common obsessions and the compulsions that accompany them.
A person who has checking OCD deals with the compulsion of needing to check something in either their physical environment or in their mind (or both). One of the most common compulsions with checking OCD is seeking reassurance. This can involve repeatedly asking friends, family members or loved ones if they’re angry or upset due to something the person with OCD did.
Checking compulsions can also occur mentally, with a person reviewing past memories for proof that they did or did not do something. Checking compulsions may also be completely physical, such as checking to make sure smoke alarms are working, checking to make sure doors are locked, or checking to make sure that no intruders are hiding in the home. With this type of OCD, the obsession is often fear-related. Obsessions that often go with checking OCD include fear of being alone, fear of hurting someone else, fear of pregnancy, and fear of illness.
One of the more well-known forms of OCD, contamination involves the obsession of being dirty or touching a harmful substance (and/or transmitting a substance or disease to someone else). People who are living with contamination OCD may struggle when they have to shake someone’s hand, touch public door handles, eat in a public restaurant, or use a public bathroom. Sadly, many people who have contamination OCD resort to spending most of their time in areas they deem “safe,” such as a single room of their home.
A relatively newly recognized form of OCD, mental contamination can occur when a person struggles to let go of a negative comment made by a friend, family member, boss, or someone else they hold in high regard. Many people who have mental contamination OCD find that their obsession anxiety is relieved by performing physical compulsions, such as cleaning or washing.
People who deal with religion-based OCD often find that much of their time is consumed by wondering if they did something to offend their higher power. They may worry that if they accidentally offend a higher being, they will not be able to redeem themselves. People who experience this form of OCD may pay close attention to the rules of their religion and perform prayer-based compulsions. Often, people with religious OCD feel the need to pray repeatedly if they deem something about their prayer “imperfect,” such as having an intrusive thought during the prayer.
Causes and Risk Factors of OCD
Anyone can develop OCD, but there are some risk factors that make a person more likely to develop the condition.
Causes and risk factors of OCD include:
- Genetics: While it’s likely that OCD has a genetic component, researchers have yet to identify exactly what part of a person’s DNA could contribute to the development of OCD.
- Biology: Brain chemistry is likely to play a role in the development of OCD.
- Learned behaviors: Watching a family member deal with obsessions and compulsions can increase the risk of mimicking these behaviors to the point of developing OCD.
- Family history: People who have one or more family members with OCD are at higher risk of developing the disorder.
- Concurring mental health issues: Other mental health issues like anxiety and substance abuse may trigger OCD symptoms in some people.
- Traumatic life events: Some people find that they begin to develop the symptoms of OCD after going through a traumatic life event. This may be related to struggling for a sense of control.
Diagnosis and Treatment Options
The combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication can be extremely effective for people who are living with OCD.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy works to change a person’s thoughts and behaviors in order to lower stress levels. A cognitive behavioral therapist can work with a person who has OCD on exposures. This type of therapy involves paying attention to an obsession without following through with a compulsion. While many people find this type of therapy to be extremely effective, it can also cause stress, and is best performed under the care of a licensed therapist.
Many people who have OCD find that their symptoms lessen when they take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. There are many different types of SSRIs. Commonly prescribed brands include Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Celexa. It can take some time to find the right SSRI to mitigate OCD symptoms, and it’s important that people who are taking medication for OCD work closely with a psychiatrist to ensure that they’re on the right track.
Tips and Resources for Living with OCD
If you’re living with OCD, you’re not alone. You may at times feel like no one else could be dealing with the same level of anxiety, or like you don’t know how long you can handle your disorder. Help is available, and you won’t always feel stuck in your obsessions and compulsions.
Reaching out to a qualified therapist can be a key first step in working through OCD symptoms. While some people will never be able to get rid of symptoms entirely, a qualified therapist can work with you to help you find ways to manage your symptoms and enjoy your life.
Resources for people who have been diagnosed with OCD include:
- The International OCD Foundation
- The Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- OCD Gamechangers
Resources for Parents of Kids Diagnosed with OCD
If your child has recently been diagnosed with OCD, you’re likely feeling both relieved that you’ve been able to pinpoint the problem and nervous about what this diagnosis means for your child’s mental health.
Thankfully, there are several resources available to help you and your family navigate your child’s diagnosis:
- OCD in Kids
- OCD Resources for Parents
- How to Help Your Child: A Parents Guide to OCD
- Children with OCD
Resources for Helping a Loved One with OCD
If a loved one is diagnosed with OCD, you’ll want to check out the following resources for tips and tools to support them:
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Resource Center
- Helping Someone Who Has OCD
- How to Support a Loved One with OCD: 7 Ways
- What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: NIMH
- Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Young Adults
- Everything You Need to Know About OCD