Table of Contents

The Basics of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Someone who is particularly fussy or analytical does not necessarily suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. The NIMH defines OCD as a long-lasting disorder that involves thoughts and compulsive actions the person is unable to control. That means they can’t, on their own, stop thinking about something or keep themselves from performing a compulsive action or ritual.

Examples of obsessive thoughts might include fears of getting hurt or germs or worrying about someone spying on you. Compulsive actions might include cleaning excessively, repetitive hand washing, or counting things a certain way or number of times.

What Causes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, medical researchers don’t know the exact cause of OCD. However, studies have shown that certain brain activity — or a lack of certain normal activities within the brain — may be a factor. Brains in individuals with OCD may not properly make use of or respond to serotonin. That’s a chemical involved in several body and brain functions, including communication between the cells of your nerves.

Other factors which might increase someone’s risk for dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder include:

  • Environment. Infections or other environmental factors could be triggers for OCD or OCD episodes.
  • Genetics. Those with an immediate family member with OCD are 25% more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder.
  • Other mental health diagnoses. Someone with another mental health diagnosis, including substance abuse disorder, depression, or anxiety, may be more likely to deal with OCD.

OCD by the Numbers

Around 1.2% of adults deal with OCD annually, and women are diagnosed with OCD at more than thrice the rate of men. According to American Family Physician, between 60 to 70% of OCD cases are chronic. That means that the person may deal with the symptoms of the disorder off and on for life and require long-term treatment.

However, remission of symptoms is possible when proper treatments are applied. Unfortunately, less than a third of patients with severe symptoms receive treatment for their disorder.

OCD is not a disorder that is limited to adults. American Family Physician notes that 1 to 2% of children in America also deal with this mental health condition.

Signs and Symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The symptoms of OCD tend to be the display of obsessions or compulsions — or both. In some cases, the person is not aware that these thoughts and actions are irrational. In other cases, they are aware that they’re being irrational, but they can’t stop themselves.

Examples of obsessions include any mental images, thoughts, fears, and urges that are repetitive, uncontrolled, and cause anxiety. Examples include:

  • Fear of something that is irrational or common, such as fear of opening a door or that someone is listening to every conversation
  • Taboo and unwanted thoughts involving self-harm, harming others, religion, or sex
  • Desiring things be in an ideal (and unrealistic) order or that everything be symmetrical

Compulsions are the actions that occur in response to obsessions. Someone might engage in excessive cleaning or showering, for example. This tends to go beyond someone being a “neat freak” and be unhealthy levels that interfere with the ability to lead a normal life. Other examples of compulsions include repeatedly checking things, counting compulsively, and ordering things.

It may be difficult to tell the difference between someone who is just very careful and someone who has OCD. If you’re spending an hour or more a day on these types of behaviors or can’t control them, consider talking to your doctor or a mental health professional to get perspective about your individual situation.

Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

According to a study published by the peer-reviewed journal Psychiatry MMC, many people put off getting treatment for OCD because they are embarrassed at what thoughts they are having or the fact that they can’t control themselves. But treatment is an option, and delaying it can make matters worse. The study authors note that early treatment can minimize any serious complication or disability associated with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The right treatment option may vary for each individual, and it’s something a person should decide on with help from a mental health treatment team. However, some common treatment options for obsessive compulsive disorder are summarized below.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is talk therapy that’s geared toward helping someone understand the root causes behind negative thoughts and actions so they can develop healthier coping mechanisms to employ. It also works to retrain the brain to deal more appropriately with those negative thought processes. CBT has been shown to be effective in treating OCD for many people.
  • Medications. A number of medications have been approved for use in the treatment of OCD. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSIs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are two types of medications that are used in treating OCD. Medications may be able to help the brain’s reaction to serotonin become more normal, which can lead to decreased OCD symptoms. Medication may also be used to treat related symptoms or anxieties that arise from OCD episodes.
  • Therapy plus medication. Studies have shown that the combination of both treatment methods provides positive results for many individuals.

OCD treatment is provided via a number of venues. In severe cases, medical or mental health professionals might recommend inpatient treatment. In other cases, treatment might be managed via outpatient therapy or by follow-up appointments with a doctor.

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published an Advisory about OCD and substance abuse disorders that has a lot of detailed information about obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • The NIMH offers a detailed page about potential treatments for OCD.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about obsessive compulsive disorder in children, including links for finding treatment specifically for children.
  • offers a number of links to information about OCD and other mental health disorders.
  • The International OCD Foundation has a page dedicated to finding a therapist or other help if you’re suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder or think you might be.

The information in this guide is presented for educational purposes only. It is not meant to be used for making a diagnosis or as a recommendation for treatment. If you believe you or someone you love is suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, reach out to your medical provider or a local mental health professional or clinic for assistance.