What is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a type of mental illness. People with OCD can have either obsessive thoughts and urges or compulsive, repetitive behaviors. Some have both obsessions and compulsions.

OCD isn’t about habits like biting your nails or always thinking negative thoughts. The disorder can affect your job, school, and relationships and keep you from living a normal life. Your thoughts and actions are beyond your control.

An obsessive thought, for example, is to think that your family members might get hurt if they don’t put their clothing on in the exact same order every morning. A compulsive habit, on the other hand, might be to wash your hands 7 times after touching something that might be dirty. Although you may not want to think or do these things, you feel powerless to stop.

 

Symptoms

Many people with OCD know that their thoughts and habits don’t make sense. They don’t do them because they enjoy them, but because they can’t quit. And if they do stop, they feel so bad that they start again.

Obsessions and compulsions can involve many different things, like a need for order or cleanness, hoarding, and intrusive thoughts about sex, religion, violence, and body parts.

Obsessive thoughts can include:

  • Fear of germs or getting dirty
  • Worries about getting hurt or others being hurt
  • Need for things to be placed in an exact order
  • Belief that certain numbers or colors are “good” or “bad”
  • Constant awareness of blinking, breathing, or other body sensations
  • Unfounded suspicion that a partner is unfaithful

Compulsive habits can include:

  • Washing hands many times in a row
  • Doing tasks in a specific order every time, or a certain “good” number of times
  • Repetitive checking on a locked door, light switch, and other things
  • Need to count things, like steps or bottles
  • Putting items in an exact order, like cans with labels facing front
  • Fear of touching doorknobs, using public toilets, or shaking hands

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Causes

Doctors aren’t sure why some people have OCD. Certain areas in the brain may not look normal in people with OCD, but more research is needed. OCD is slightly more common in women than in men. Symptoms often appear in teens or young adults. Stress can make symptoms worse.

There may be a gene or genes linked to OCD, but this is still unknown.

You are more likely to get the disorder if you have:

  • A parent, sibling, or child with OCD
  • Depression, anxiety or tics
  • Experience with trauma
  • A history of physical or sexual abuse as a child

 

Diagnosis

Your doctor may do a physical exam and bloodwork to make sure that your symptoms aren’t caused by something else. She will also talk with you about your feelings, thoughts, and habits. If your thoughts and habits keep you from doing what you want to do for at least an hour a day, you may have OCD.

Treatment

There’s no cure for OCD. But with treatments, you may be able to lessen how much your symptoms interfere with your life. Your doctor may prescribe medicine, send you to talk therapy, called psychotherapy, or both.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 12, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Mental Health: “Obsessive-compulsive disorder: When unwanted thoughts or irresistible actions take over” and “Obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Mayo Clinic: “Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Symptoms & Causes;” “Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Diagnosis & treatment;” and “Cognitive behavioral therapy.” 

American Psychiatric Association: “What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?”

International OCD Foundation: “What is OCD?”  

NYU Langone Child Study Center: “Habit reversal therapy: An approach to managing repetitive behavior disorders.”

OCD-UK: “The Different Types of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”

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