Introduction to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder where a person has recurrent and unwanted ideas or impulses (called obsessions) and an urge or compulsion to do something to relieve the discomfort caused by the obsession. The obsessive thoughts range from the idea of losing control, to themes surrounding religion or keeping things or parts of one's body clean all the time. Compulsions are behaviors that help reduce the anxiety surrounding the obsessions. Most people (90%) who have OCD have both obsessions and compulsions. The thoughts and behaviors a person with OCD has are senseless, repetitive, distressing, and sometimes harmful, but they are also difficult to overcome.
OCD is more common than schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or panic disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Yet, it is still commonly overlooked by mental health professionals, mental health advocacy groups, and people who themselves have the problem.
Many people still carry the misperception that they somehow caused themselves to have these compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts. Nothing could be further from the truth. OCD is likely the cause of a number of intertwined and complex factors which include genetics, biology, personality development, and how a person learns to react to the environment around them. What scientists today do know is that it is not a sign of a character flaw or a personal weakness. OCD is a serious mental disorder, which is more treatable than ever. Without the appropriate treatment, it affects a person's ability to function in every day activities, one's work, one's family, and one's social life.
What are Obsessions and Compulsions?
Obsessions are unwanted ideas or impulses that repeatedly well up in the mind of a person with OCD. Common ideas include persistent fears that harm may come to self or a loved one, an unreasonable concern with becoming contaminated, or an excessive need to do things correctly or perfectly. Again and again, the individual experiences a disturbing thought, such as, "My hands may be contaminated -- I must wash them" or "I may have left the gas on" or "I am going to injure my child." These thoughts tend to be intrusive, unpleasant, and produce a high degree of anxiety. Sometimes the obsessions are of a violent or a sexual nature, or concern illness. (NIMH)
In response to their obsessions, most people with OCD resort to repetitive behaviors called compulsions. The most common of these are washing and checking (e.g., making sure the gas from the oven has been turned off). Other compulsive behaviors include counting (often while performing another compulsive action such as hand washing), repeating, hoarding, and endlessly rearranging objects in an effort to keep them in precise alignment with each other. Cognitive problems, such as mentally repeating phrases, list making, or checking, are also common. These behaviors generally are intended to ward off harm to the person with OCD or others. Some people with OCD have regimented rituals while others have rituals that are complex and changing. Performing rituals may give the person with OCD some relief from anxiety, but it is only temporary. (NIMH) We have developed the information here to act as a comprehensive guide to help you better understand OCD and find out more information about them on your own. Choose from among the categories at left to begin your journey into recovery from this treatable disorder.
Help is available for OCD in the form of medication and specific forms of psychotherapy (e.g., Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for OCD). Consultation with a psychiatrist and a psychologist or social worker with expertise in CBT are recommended first steps.
A few other notes are relevant:
Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that worsen during times of stress are quite normally experienced by many people, and are not necessarily a sign of OCD. The tendency to become obsessed with ideas or to compulsively pursue organization and ordering tasks are valued personality features in a variety of detail-oriented fields, including accounting, computer programming and scientific research. True OCD is an extreme condition diagnosed only when obsessions and compulsions cause significant impairment in a person’s ability to work or meet other important responsibilities (such as when a person is unable to get to work on time because she is spending over an hour checking to see that her door is locked).
OCD should not be confused with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD; which is discussed in greater detail in our personality disorders topic area). OCPD is diagnosed to describe pervasive and life-long perfectionist, puritanical and rigidly controlling personality traits that some people demonstrate. The diagnosis of OCPD doesn’t require the presence of obsessions and compulsions (as does OCD).