Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is marked by uncontrollable, repetitive behaviors (compulsions) and thoughts (obsessions) that the individual feels the need to repeat over and over again such as hoarding, constantly checking the stove, and incessant hand-washing.  OCD is considered to be a unique condition that was once classified as an anxiety disorder.

These individuals become obsessed with performing certain routines and rituals in the hopes of making the obsessive thoughts and the anxiety they cause go away or to prevent them.  Performing the rituals makes the thoughts go away only temporarily because when the thoughts return the individual is compelled once again to perform the routines believed to end the anxious thoughts.

The cycle of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can end up consuming many hours and interfere greatly with the performance of normal daily activities.  Studies have shown that two percent of the population suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and is more than the people who suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and panic disorder.  It is believed that environmental factors and a neurobiological predisposition both cause the compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts.

What are the Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Unwanted ideas or impulses (obsessions) that happen over and over again.  The individual may feel a constant need to wash household items because of feeling that they are never sufficiently clean or may constantly check doors within the house to make sure that they are actually locked.  Individuals with Obsessive Compulsive disorder may fear germs and dirt, having bad or sinful thoughts, and may engage in constant hand-washing, hoarding, etc. along with a need for order and exactness.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Causes

There is still a lot to be learned about OCD and its causes, but so far researchers have found that those with the condition might have biological differences in the brain. It seems that people with OCD have abnormal levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which helps different parts of the brain to communicate. This has been proven by the fact that SSRIs, a type of medication which affects serotonin levels, are effective in treating OCD.

It also seems like there’s a genetic factor involved with OCD, as it appears to run in families. This suggests that certain genes might increase someone’s risk of the disorder. However, environmental factors seem to be involved too, since stress or illness can often trigger OCD in those who have not previously shown symptoms. It could be that genes predispose people to the condition, and certain environmental factors activate those genes.

A very specific type of OCD called Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections (PANDAS) is caused by a strep infection. It’s believed in these cases that parts of the brain are mistakenly attacked by the immune system rather than the infection itself, and this causes obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

How is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Treated?

The combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy is considered to be the best way to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Therapy’s goal is to help individuals face their fears and become less anxious without performing any rituals.  Individuals who don’t respond to therapy and medication may be given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Prevention

There is no known way to prevent OCD, but it is possible to prevent the disorder from affecting normal daily functioning by seeking treatment for the condition.

Medication, specifically SSRIs, can be effective in reducing OCD symptoms. Although they may not completely alleviate the disorder, they can make it more manageable in order to improve daily functioning. They are designed for long term use and often take several weeks to start working.

Psychotherapy can also successfully manage the symptoms of OCD, with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and habit reversal training being particular effective therapies. These aim to replace negative and irrational thoughts patterns and behaviors with more positive ones. They can be used in conjunction with medications or instead of medication in those who didn’t respond successfully to SSRIs.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
January 17, 2018