What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that affects about 2% of the population. It causes obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, which are unwanted, distressing, and repetitive.
OCD symptoms can sometimes appear during childhood, but more often, it develops during early adulthood. OCD can significantly impact the lives of those affected, including their work life, social life, and overall well-being.
OCD affects all genders equally, but it can present in many different ways. Unfortunately, OCD can worsen over time if left untreated; that’s why it’s essential to seek help because effective treatments are available.
This article will look at what OCD is, its symptoms, causes, the best treatments, and some self-help techniques you can try.
What is OCD?
OCD is a mental health condition that has two components:
- Obsessions: Unwanted or disturbing thoughts, visualizations, or urges that repeatedly arise in your mind, causing anxiety and unease. When they appear, it’s hard to think of anything else.
- Compulsions: Repetitive behaviors you feel you must do to relieve the anxious feelings caused by obsessive thoughts. Compulsions could be physical acts, such as checking something is locked, or mental rituals like checking how you feel.
OCD is not just about being neat or having to do things your way, and it’s different from bad habits such as nail-biting. It’s an inability to stop intrusive thoughts or doing things you don’t want to do. It makes you feel powerless and afraid that there will be consequences if you don’t do something a specific way.
We all experience negative thoughts and can develop bad habits occasionally, but this is not the same as OCD. The obsessions or compulsions that come with OCD usually take up more than one hour per day, are very unpleasant, make day-to-day life difficult, and are uncontrollable.
Types of OCD
OCD presents and affects people in various ways, but there are five main categories which the majority of cases usually come under:
Contamination: A constant, overwhelming need to be clean and a fear that things you touch could be dirty. Some may feel an internal sense of contamination when others wrong them or “treat them like dirt.”
Checking: Needing to repeatedly check for problems, such as unlocked doors or windows, light switches, domestic appliances, alarms, etc., and also, checking oneself for physical or mental illness and checking communications like emails for mistakes.
Symmetry and ordering: Needing to arrange objects or organize things a certain way due to fear of harm or to relieve anxiety.
Rumination and intrusive thoughts: Feeling unable to stop repetitive, undesired thoughts. These obsessive thoughts could be violent, sexual, blasphemous, and more, causing intense distress.
Hoarding: Needing to keep or collect things you may not want and feeling unable to throw away unneeded items.
Within or overlapping these five main categories, there are infinite potential variations of OCD. It can fixate on any thought, subject, or fear and often important things to you, such as religion or relationships.
Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder
With OCD, the main symptoms you have are obsessions, compulsions, or both, which cause distress and negatively affect your quality of life.
Sufferers may try to ignore their OCD, cope alone, or control their thoughts and behaviors. But generally, they will find it very difficult to do, and improvements can be short-lived as it usually keeps coming back.
Here are some common examples of obsessions and compulsions that people with OCD may experience:
Obsessive thoughts and associated symptoms may involve:
- Feeling dirty or worrying about hygiene, germs, and illness.
- Worrying your actions have already harmed someone or that you could lose control and harm someone in the future.
- Having disturbing visualizations of yourself doing something abusive, sexual, or violent.
- Believing bad things will happen if you don’t organize items a certain way.
- Worrying that if you throw something away, it could cause harm.
- Feeling guilty, ashamed, disgusted, or disturbed by your thoughts.
Compulsive habits and associated symptoms may include:
- Excessively cleaning yourself or items around you, checking things for contamination, and avoiding things you feel might be dirty.
- Checking your memory or reviewing past actions to make sure you didn’t cause someone harm.
- Repeating a phrase, counting, or performing mental rituals to deal with intrusive thoughts.
- Organizing items the “right way” to avoid bad things from happening.
- Repeatedly checking your possessions to make sure you haven’t lost or thrown anything away.
- Regularly seeking reassurance and needing others to tell you everything is OK.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder causes
It’s not known what causes people to have OCD, but it’s believed that various factors may play a role, including:
Environmental factors: OCD is more common in people who have experienced abuse, trauma, or prolonged stress. Significant life events may also trigger OCD in some people, such as injury, grief, or childbirth.
Family history: You’re more likely to have OCD if someone in your family also has it. Genes may play a role. But people can still develop OCD even if no one in their family has it.
Personality: Having certain personality traits, such as being meticulous, methodical, and neat, or highly anxious and having a lot of responsibility, could make you more likely to develop OCD.
Brain differences: People with OCD can have lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin or impaired function in some parts of the brain.
Treatments for OCD
The treatments available for OCD can be effective, helping you manage symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Before treatment is given, a doctor will ask about your symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors so they can make an accurate diagnosis. Then, they may perform a blood test or physical exam to check if anything else could be causing your symptoms.
The two main treatments for OCD are:
- Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you confront your obsessive thoughts in a safe space and learn how to manage them without acting out compulsions.
- Medication: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are a type of antidepressant, increase serotonin levels in the brain. Medication is usually given alongside psychotherapy.
CBT can start helping quite fast, whereas SSRIs can take several months before the benefits become noticeable.
Other treatments for OCD include:
- TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) – A non-invasive device that uses magnetic fields to stimulate the brain to improve symptoms of OCD.
- Neuromodulation – A procedure that involves implanting electrodes in your brain, which stimulate nerve cells.
- Relaxation techniques – Breathing exercises, massage, yoga, meditation, guided imagery, and other relaxation techniques can reduce stress and improve symptoms of OCD.
How to cope with obsessive-compulsive disorder
While the most effective way to treat OCD is to seek professional help, there might also be some ways you can help yourself.
Not all of these things will work for everyone, but here are some self-help techniques you can try which can improve well-being and might help you cope with your OCD:
Seek support from others: Stigma and other factors can make it difficult to talk about OCD, but if you can share your experiences with someone trusted, such as family or friends, it can provide valuable emotional support, counter loneliness, boost morale, and help you cope.
Read self-help books for OCD: Books based on CBT and written by medical experts can help you better understand OCD and offer advice on how to apply CBT techniques. Knowledge is power, and these practical guides can help you develop effective coping strategies for OCD.
Mindfulness: Meditation and other mindfulness exercises can help reduce anxiety and stress and boost focus and self-compassion. Therapists often incorporate elements of mindfulness when treating someone with OCD.
Have a healthy lifestyle: Physical activities like yoga, walking, going to the gym, and playing sports can improve mental health. Eating healthily and getting enough sleep are also important parts of self-care, which can improve well-being, boost energy, and help you cope.
OCD affects men, women, and children, and its symptoms can present in countless ways. But no matter how it presents and whether it’s mild or severe, the right treatments can help most of the time. However, when OCD is left untreated, it can worsen over time, so please seek professional help if it’s affecting you.
If you’d like to talk to someone about your OCD in a safe space, our online therapists here at Calmerry are always available. They specialize in helping people overcome all kinds of mental health disorders, including OCD, and only use the most effective evidence-based approaches.
Kate has an MD in Health and Medical Psychology. She has worked in the healthcare industry since 2017, helping people with depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief as well as identity, relationship, and adjustment issues. Kate tries to make the world a better place by fighting stigma and discrimination and advocating for equality and equity for all people. And what she loves most about her work at Calmerry is the possibility to make quality mental health care even more accessible to everyone – one step at a time.Read more