Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has long been considered a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by repeated or persistent and intrusive thoughts or unwanted images (obsessions) and repetitive or ritualistic behaviors (compulsions) that are acted out to make the thoughts go away or relieve the anxiety associated with the unwanted thoughts or images. The content of obsessions and compulsions vary from person to person and may change over time.

Some of the more common obsessions and compulsions surround:

  • Cleaning (contamination obsessions and cleaning compulsions)
  • Symmetry (symmetry obsessions and repeating, ordering, and counting compulsions)
  • Forbidden or taboo thoughts (e.g., aggressive, sexual, and religious obsessions and related compulsions)
  • Harm (e.g., fears of harm to oneself or others and related checking compulsions)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder ranges in severity from mild to severe. Moderate and severe cases can be profoundly debilitating and significantly impact one’s ability to function at work or school and in relationships.

Common Signs and Symptoms of OCD

Obsession signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fear of being contaminated by touching others (e.g., shaking hands) or objects others have touched
  • Doubts about having locked doors and windows or turning off the stove
  • Fear of losing things you might need
  • Intense stress when things are not arranged in a particular way
  • Fears of hurting yourself or others
  • Excessive attention on superstitions or things considered “lucky” or “unlucky”
  • Unwanted or intrusive thoughts that are sexually explicit or violent images
  • Images of hurting your child
  • Avoidance of situations that trigger obsessions, such as shaking hands
  • Raw, red or peeling skin on the hands or other body parts due to frequent washing or scrubbing
  • Skin lesions due to picking at your skin
  • Hair loss or bald spots due to hair pulling

Compulsion signs and symptoms may include:

  • Excessive cleaning or handwashing to the point of causing physical damage to your skin
  • Repeatedly checking things such as locks, windows and appliances
  • Counting, tapping, repeating certain words or engaging in some other ritual to reduce anxiety
  • Spending an excessive amount of time ordering or arranging things a particular way
  • Repeatedly checking in with loved ones to ensure they are safe
  • Praying excessively or repeatedly acting out a ritual out of religious fear

What causes OCD?

The exact cause of OCD is not fully understood. Research has found both biologic and environmental factors that affect the emergence of symptoms. There may be a genetic component as well as changes in the body’s natural chemistry or brain function. Insufficient serotonin has been correlated with OCD and the use of medications that increase this chemical in the brain can improve OCD symptoms. OCD may also stem from behaviors or habits learned over time.

How is OCD treated?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is most effectively treated by a combination of psychotherapy and psychotropic medications. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most commonly used and effective type of psychotherapy to treat OCD. CBT involves retraining or reframing your thought patterns and routines so that compulsive activities are no longer necessary. The most commonly prescribed medications for OCD include antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). Sometimes a combination of different medications is required to target more complex symptoms and co-occurring disorders.

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