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What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental health condition in which the person suffers from intrusive, repetitive, and unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and actions (compulsions). Many who suffer from OCD are fully aware of their thoughts and actions; however, they cannot control or stop them.
While everyone might have certain habits or idiosyncracies that they deal with daily, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), for someone to be suffering from OCD, their thoughts or actions:
- Take up at least 1 hour of the day
- Are beyond their control
- Directly interfere with daily life
- Are not enjoyable
Symptoms of OCD
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder breaks down into two main categories: thoughts (obsessions) and actions (compulsions). These obsessive thoughts and repetitive behaviors can often cause the person significant distress.
Below are some of the symptoms associated with both obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions are intrusive and often irrational thoughts that regularly occur. These obsessive can often come with feelings of anxiety, shame, or disgust. They also tend to occur at inopportune times and can affect a person’s overall quality of life.
Examples of obsessions include:
- Unpleasant thoughts or images
- Fear of losing or misplacing things
- Thoughts of harming yourself or others
- Fear of contamination, germs, dirt, etc.
- Constantly questioning if you did something
- An irrational fear of saying or doing the wrong thing
- Needing things placed in a particular location or in a certain way
- Convincing yourself something is happening even with no proof or reason to believe it is
Compulsions are acts or rituals performed for the sole purpose of attempting to relieve the symptoms that are associated with an obsession.
In many cases, these compulsive behaviors aren’t needed and are often time-consuming. People with OCD still act out the compulsion because they feel they MUST perform the behavior.
Below are some examples of common compulsions:
- Repeated hand washing, showering, brushing your teeth, etc.
- Counting the same thing repeatedly
- Constantly checking locks or appliances
- Repeated cleaning
- Ordering things in a specific order or in a particular way
- Following a strict routine even when it’s not convenient or is detrimental
- Constantly seeking approval
Types of OCD
Most OCD cases fall under one of four categories used to diagnose the condition. These four categories are:
- Checking: constantly checking things such as the time, locks, and appliances
- Contamination: Having a fear of things that are not clean, including yourself
- Symmetry and order: Needing things arranged in a particular, specific way
- Ruminations and intrusive thoughts: Obsessing over specific thoughts
OCD Risk Factors
While there is no known cause of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, medical professionals have theorized that certain factors can trigger symptoms or make them worse.
Studies have shown that people who have a direct family member who suffers from OCD are at a much higher risk of suffering from OCD. If that relative developed OCD as an adolescent or teenager, the risk becomes even more significant.
Studies have also shown a strong connection between the environment a person grows up in and developing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is believed that children exposed to trauma and abuse, either directly or indirectly, are more likely to develop OCD.
Chemical Makeup of the Brain
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder involves communication problems between the frontal cortex of the brain and the deeper subcortical area. Research has shown that those suffering from OCD have abnormalities in specific brain sections.
There are many disorders that, while different from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, share many of the same characteristics as OCD. Sometimes, these disorders might even get misdiagnosed as OCD.
Eating disorders (i.e., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating) all involve a disturbance in eating behaviors. Someone suffering from an eating disorder will often obsess over food, whether it be the amount they are eating (anorexia) or what they are eating is doing to their body (bulimia and binge eating).
Personality disorders feature rigid and unhealthy thinking, functioning, and behavioral patterns. There are many personality disorders, one being Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.
Like OCD, someone with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder will be obsessed with orderliness, perfection, and control.
Trichotillomania is a hair-pulling disorder where the person regularly pulls their hair out to the point where they begin experiencing hair loss. They continue pulling their hair out despite repeated attempts to stop.
Similar to OCD, after pulling their hair out, they might feel a sense of relief or even gratification despite the negative impact the hair pulling has on their appearance.
Someone suffering from hoarding disorder has difficulty parting ways with possessions, even if there is no legitimate use for the item. They will often feel distressed at just the mere thought of getting rid of something they have. If not appropriately addressed, hoarding disorder can lead to an unsafe living environment for the hoarder and anyone in the house.
Also known as Tourette Syndrom, Tic Disorder is highlighted by rapid, sudden, recurrent, and nonrhythmic movements such as blinking or sniffing. In the same way as OCD, these actions are hard or impossible to control independently.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Someone with PTSD may also experience intrusive thoughts and then act in a way specifically meant to reduce their feelings of anxiety or stress as it relates to those thoughts.
OCD and schizophrenia share many similarities. Both are:
- Mental illnesses
- Linked to abnormalities in brain structure and functioning
- Contributing factors to difficulties in everyday life
Where they differ is that while someone suffering from OCD will deal with obsessions, someone with schizophrenia will experience delusions.
Substance Use Disorder
It is common for those suffering from OCD to turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication. They think substance abuse will relieve some of their symptoms and make them feel more “normal,” even if it’s just for a short time.
Unfortunately, long-term substance abuse can not only make their symptoms worse, but it can also lead to the development of a substance dependency or addiction.
OCD Treatment Options
Not everyone responds the same way to the same types of treatment, and there are various effective treatment methods available for those suffering from OCD.
Psychotherapy is one of the more popular treatment methods for OCD among therapists and other healthcare professionals. Psychotherapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is used to help better understand how a person’s OCD developed. It can also be used as a teaching method for healthier ways of dealing with possible triggers in the future.
A form of CBT known as Exposure and Response Prevention (EX/RP) has proven to be particularly effective in treating OCD. With EX/RP, also known as exposure therapy, your doctor or therapist will put you in a situation designed to trigger a compulsion. From there, you will learn to lessen and eventually stop your OCD thoughts and actions.
In addition to psychotherapy, some treatment professionals might prescribe certain medications. These medications can boost serotonin levels which can alleviate some of the symptoms associated with OCD and improve overall communication within the brain.
Medications that can be effective in treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder include:
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, and Fluvoxamine
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
In 2018, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as a form of OCD treatment for adults. The TMS unit is a non-invasive device held above the head to induce a magnetic field, and it targets specific parts of the brain that controls and regulates OCD symptoms through deep brain stimulation.
It might feel difficult to talk to someone about your OCD who doesn’t either have OCD themselves or know what you are going through. Support groups provide a safe and supportive environment to share what you are going through with others who also have OCD.
The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) offers a directory with over 400 support groups for OCD and related disorders worldwide.
If you are unsure which treatment option is best for you and your needs, you can talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional for guidance.
Find Help For OCD
If you or someone you know suffers from OCD, it’s ok to ask for help. You can talk to your primary care doctor or enlist the support of a therapist to get the treatment you deserve.
Frequently Asked Questions About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
What are the two main symptoms of OCD?
The two main symptoms of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are thoughts, while compulsions are actions.
What are the types of OCD?
There are four main types of OCD:
- Symmetry and order
- Ruminations and intrusive thoughts
What causes OCD?
While there is no known cause of OCD, there are certain factors that can increase the risk of the development of OCD, including:
- Brain Chemistry
Is there a treatment for OCD?
Yes, OCD is treatable. There are a variety of treatment methods, including:
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation