Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Learn About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Everyone double checks things sometimes. For example, you might double check to make sure the stove or iron is turned off before leaving the house. But people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) feel the need to check things repeatedly, or have certain thoughts or perform routines and rituals over and over. The thoughts and rituals associated with OCD cause distress and get in the way of daily life.

The frequent, upsetting thoughts are called obsessions. To try to control them, a person will feel an overwhelming urge to repeat certain rituals or behaviors called compulsions. People with OCD can't control these obsessions and compulsions; most of the time, the rituals end up controlling them.

People obsessed with germs or dirt may develop a compulsion to wash their hands over and over. Obsessed with intruders, they may lock and relock the doors many times before going to bed. Various counting, touching, and checking behaviors are characteristic of OCD. Performing compulsive rituals is not pleasurable; at best, they provide temporary relief from the anxiety accompanying the obsessive thoughts.

Some common obsessions include frequent, intrusive thoughts of violence or harming loved ones; unwelcome sexual thoughts or images, and having guilt-provoking thoughts that are prohibited by religious beliefs. People with OCD may also be preoccupied with order, symmetry, and balance, and some are “hoarders” who can’t seem to throw anything away.

Healthy people also have rituals, such as checking and re-checking the stove before leaving the house. The difference is that people with OCD perform their rituals even though doing so is distressing and interferes with their daily lives. Although most adults with OCD recognize that what they are doing is senseless, some adults and most children may not realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary.

Researchers have found that several parts of the brain are involved in fear and anxiety, and the neurotransmitter serotonin seems to play a prominent role. By learning more about fear and anxiety in the brain, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role. OCD sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some people have it while others don't.

In summary, people with OCD frequently experience repeated thoughts or images about many different things, such as fear of germs, dirt, or intruders; acts of violence; hurting loved ones; sexual acts; conflicts with religious beliefs; or being overly tidy. They perform the same rituals over and over, such as hand-washing, locking and relocking doors, counting, keeping unneeded items, or repeating the same steps again and again. People with ODC want to but can't control the unwanted thoughts and behaviors; they get no pleasure from either, but seek the relief from the anxiety caused by the obsessions by engaging in the compulsions. Finally, people with OCD spend substantial time involved in the thoughts and rituals, which cause significant distress and interfere with the quality of life. Help is available, however, and medications affecting brain levels of serotonin can be effective, as can certain psychological techniques for dealing with the anxiety and distress caused by the obsessions and compulsions.

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