This page is for informational purposes only — if you need help for OCD, please contact Vertava Health to connect with a professional and receive individualized treatment and support today.

Overview Of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic mental health condition characterized by a pattern of unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive actions (compulsions).

Someone with this condition has a need to perform compulsive acts based on their thinking and rationale. To not do so causes anxiety that can interfere with daily life.

OCD affects 2.2 million adults and symptoms may start in the late teens or early ’20s. One-third of those with this condition experience their first symptoms in childhood.

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Symptoms Of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessions are persistent and repetitive unwanted thoughts or impulses that cause distress and tend to have a theme. For example, someone with a constant need to wash their hands may obsess about germs.
Some common obsessions include:

  • fear of dirt or contamination
  • difficulty tolerating the unknown
  • the need to keep things symmetrical or in a specific order
  • thoughts of harming oneself or others
  • unwanted thoughts about sex, religion, or aggression

Examples of an obsession might include imagining recurring, unpleasant images or the need to arrange things so they are symmetrical or in a specific numerical order.

Symptoms of compulsions include:

  • repeated washing or excessive cleaning
  • counting
  • the need for a strict routine
  • the need for constant reassurance

Some examples of compulsions include showering several times a day or counting things in patterns. Although there are some common symptoms of OCD, it’s a very individualized condition that people experience in different ways.

Causes And Risk Factors

OCD is a poorly understood condition, so the exact cause is unknown. There are some theories, however, including:

  • changes in brain chemistry or functioning
  • family history, indicating a genetic cause
  • a learned process, like something children pick up from watching adults

Stress also tends to trigger intrusive thoughts that may lead to obsessions and compulsions. A person who experiences trauma might become obsessed with personal safety. They may imagine getting attacked or visualize harm done to them, responding in an irrational way.

OCD may also work in concert with other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders or substance misuse.

How Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Diagnosed?

There is no blood test you can take that says you have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Instead, mental health professionals will likely evaluate your behavior to determine if you experience both obsessions and compulsions that disrupt your life for at least one hour a day.

A mental health professional will likely talk to you about your feelings and thoughts, and may ask for permission to speak with your family and friends. They may consider whether your symptoms actually indicate another condition such as an anxiety disorder or schizophrenia.

There may also be a physical exam. This will allow your care team to rule out another cause that may mimic the symptoms of OCD. They will also want to know if you have any complications related to the illness.

OCD-Related Conditions

There are conditions that are similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder, including:

  • Body dysmorphic disorder — an obsession about physical appearances, such as weight or body size
  • Hoarding disorder — an obsession with collecting or ordering things
  • Trichotillomania — the urge to pull out and eat your hair
  • Excoriation — the need to pick at your skin
  • Hypochondriasis — being obsessed about diseases and physical health
  • Olfactory reference syndrome — an obsession about body order

Treating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD treatment usually involves medication and psychotherapy. The healthcare team may decide if you need one alone or a combination of the two to feel better.

Medications can include serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) to reduce the symptoms of OCD. It can take up to 12 weeks to feel the effects of the medication.

Treatment may also involve addressing any co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, body dysmorphic disorder, or anxiety. To improve treatment outcomes, it’s necessary to address all co-occurring issues at the same time.