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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), formerly considered a type of anxiety disorder, is now regarded as a unique condition. It is a potentially disabling illness that traps people in endless cycles of repetitive thoughts and behaviors. People with OCD are plagued by recurring and distressing thoughts, fears, or images (obsessions) they cannot control. The anxiety (nervousness) produced by these thoughts leads to an urgent need to perform certain rituals or routines (compulsions). The compulsive rituals are performed in an attempt to prevent the obsessive thoughts or make them go away.

Although the ritual may temporarily alleviate anxiety, the person must perform the ritual again when the obsessive thoughts return. This OCD cycle can progress to the point of taking up hours of the person's day and significantly interfering with normal activities. People with OCD may be aware that their obsessions and compulsions are senseless or unrealistic, but they cannot stop them.

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What Are the Symptoms of OCD?

The symptoms of OCD, which are the obsessions and compulsions, may vary. Common obsessions include:

  • Fear of dirt or contamination by germs
  • Fear of causing harm to another
  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Fear of being embarrassed or behaving in a socially unacceptable manner
  • Fear of thinking evil or sinful thoughts
  • Need for order, symmetry, or exactness
  • Excessive doubt and the need for constant reassurance

Common compulsions include:

  • Repeatedly bathing, showering, or washing hands
  • Refusing to shake hands or touch doorknobs
  • Repeatedly checking things, such as locks or stoves
  • Constant counting, mentally or aloud, while performing routine tasks
  • Constantly arranging things in a certain way
  • Eating foods in a specific order
  • Being stuck on words, images or thoughts, usually disturbing, that won't go away and can interfere with sleep
  • Repeating specific words, phrases, or prayers
  • Needing to perform tasks a certain number of times
  • Collecting or hoarding items with no apparent value

What Causes OCD?

Although the exact cause of OCD is not fully understood, studies have shown that a combination of biological and environmental factors may be involved.

Biological Factors: The brain is a very complex structure. It contains billions of nerve cells -- called neurons -- that must communicate and work together for the body to function normally. Neurons communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters that stimulate the flow of information from one nerve cell to the next.  At one time, it was thought that low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin was responsible for the development of OCD.  Now, however, scientists think that OCD arises from problems in the pathways of the brain that link areas dealing with judgment and planning with another area that filters messages involving body movements.

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