What is OCD?

What is OCD?

Most people will check to make sure they’ve turned off the stove after cooking or turned off the lights when leaving the house.  While the impulse to check things is a typical human condition, people with OCD feel the need to check things repeatedly or engage in routine and ritual behavior.  OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and both an obsession (a thought) and a compulsion (and action) must be present for this diagnosis.  People with OCD have difficulty controlling these behaviors.

Obsessions often stem from fears, such as an extreme fear of germs.  To combat this fear, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder feel the need to repeatedly wash their hands.  Other common compulsions include locking and unlocking doors, counting, hoarding, or repeating a pattern of steps.  Often when patterns are interrupted, people with OCD feel a need to start again at the beginning of the routine.  These thoughts and behaviors are unwanted, but people cannot control them.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder causes anxiety from the unwanted thoughts.  The compulsive behavior is a way for a person with OCD to get rid of this anxiety, at least for a period of time.  People with obsessive-compulsive disorder often spend an hour or more each day participating in their rituals, which can interfere significantly with daily life. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder has many possible causes, from a psychological problem to a biological problem within the brain.  People with OCD often have less white matter in their brains, and the connections within their brains might be different than in a typical brain.  Many scientists compare the brain activity to a light switch -- instead of the switch turning off after a person checks on something, the switch in a person with OCD stays on, and the person feels compelled to perform actions over and over.  Much research has also shown a genetic component to OCD.

OCD also tends to be comorbid with disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, autism, ADHD, and tic disorders.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder can start anytime from preschool-age to adulthood.  It typically develops between ages 8 and 12 or between the late teenage to early adulthood years.

OCD is treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.  Medications include anti-depressants and anti-anxiety treatments, which help to reduce the anxiety people feel about their obsessions.  Cognitive behavior therapy teaches new ways of thinking and behaving, and this method has proved effective for individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  This method can also include exposure and response therapy, in which individuals are exposed to their fear or anxiety-provoking stimuli, and they are taught ways to better deal with the feelings of anxiety.  Eventually, people who go through exposure and response therapy no longer feel anxious when exposed to the stimuli. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder cannot be prevented, and it is often a chronic condition.  However, through the possible treatments, symptoms and interference with life can be greatly reduced.

Photo by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

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Written by: Candice Evans See other articles by Candice Evans
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