What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which a person has an unreasonable thought, fear, or worry that he or she tries to manage through a ritualized activity to reduce the anxiety. In summary, frequently occurring disturbing thoughts or images are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to prevent or dispel them are called compulsions.
What are obsessions, as they relate to OCD?
Obsessions are irrational thoughts, fears, or worries that frequently recur and cause great anxiety, but cannot be controlled through reasoning. Common obsessions include:
- A need to have things in a very particular order
- An extreme preoccupation with dirt or germs
- Persistent thoughts of performing repugnant sexual acts
- Preoccupation with order or symmetry
- Repeated doubts (for example, about having turned off the burners on a stove)
- Spending long periods of time touching things or counting
- Thoughts about violence or hurting someone
- Troubled by thoughts that are against personal religious beliefs
Although an individual with an obsession realizes that the thoughts are unreasonable and not related to real-life problems, this knowledge is not enough to make the unwanted thoughts go away.
In an attempt to get rid of the obsessive thoughts, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) engage in compulsive behavior.
What are compulsions, as they relate to OCD?
Compulsions are repetitive, ritualized behaviors enacted to reduce anxiety caused by the obsession(s). Examples of compulsions include:
- Checking and rechecking (repeatedly) to ensure that a door is locked or that the oven is turned off
- Following rigid rules of order (i.e. putting on clothes in the very same sequence every day, alphabetizing the spices in the spice cabinet and becoming upset if the order becomes disrupted)
- Repeated hand washing (often 100+ times a day)
Compulsive behaviors can become excessive, disruptive, and time-consuming, and may interfere with daily activities and relationships.
Who is affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder often begins in adolescence or early adulthood, but can also first occur in childhood. OCD affects men and women equally, and appears to run in families. It is not unusual for other anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, or substance abuse to accompany OCD. About 2 percent of the population annually experience OCD. People may avoid situations in which they might have to confront their obsessions, or try unsuccessfully to use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves.
How is OCD diagnosed and treated?
The disorder is diagnosed only when such activities:
- Are very distressing
- Consume at least one hour each day
- Interfere with daily life
A combination of two treatments (medication and behavioral treatment) is helpful for most patients with OCD.