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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) impacts millions of people worldwide. In the United States, more than 3 million adults have received a diagnosis of OCD at some stage in their lives (1).

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by unwanted thoughts, known as obsessions. Obsessions provoke anxiety, and repetitive behaviors, known as compulsions, aimed at reducing that anxiety (2). These obsessions and compulsions may significantly disrupt daily life and cause considerable distress.

Individuals with OCD often feel compelled to perform these repetitive actions in response to their intrusive thoughts, despite efforts to resist or ignore them. This creates a cycle where the obsessions trigger compulsive behaviors, which temporarily alleviate the anxiety but ultimately reinforce the cycle of OCD (3). Living with OCD may be challenging, and individuals may experience feelings of shame, embarrassment, and frustration. However, effective treatments are available to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Types of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) doesn’t have a formal classification for its different types, but experts commonly group symptoms into several subtypes to better understand the condition:

  • Fear of Harm and Checking: Individuals with this subtype experience intrusive thoughts about harm befalling themselves or others, leading to compulsive checking behaviors to ensure safety (4).
  • Contamination and Cleaning: This subtype involves obsessive fears of contamination and compulsive cleaning rituals to alleviate anxiety (5).
  • Intrusive Sexual, Violent, or Taboo Thoughts: Some individuals experience distressing intrusive thoughts related to taboo subjects like sex or violence, which might lead to compulsive behaviors aimed at neutralizing these thoughts (6).
  • Symmetry, Perfectionism, and Ordering: OCD may manifest as an obsession with symmetry, exactness, or arranging objects in a particular order to reduce distress (7).
  • Collecting or Hoarding: This subtype involves compulsive collecting or hoarding of items, often due to an irrational fear of discarding something important (8).

Your symptoms may align primarily with one of these subtypes or encompass multiple categories. The lack of clear boundaries between these subtypes contributes to their unofficial status.

Additionally, there are other unofficial “types” of OCD that individuals may experience:

  • Scrupulosity (Religious OCD): This subtype revolves around obsessions and compulsions related to religious beliefs. Individuals may feel compelled to perform specific rituals or behaviors to alleviate feelings of guilt or anxiety related to perceived blasphemy (9).
  • Pure O (Obsession): Pure O involves distressing intrusive thoughts and obsessions without apparent compulsions. While compulsions may still occur, they often take the form of mental rituals rather than outward actions (10).
  • Relationship OCD: People with this subtype experience persistent doubts, questions, and intrusive thoughts concerning their relationships, leading to compulsive behaviors aimed at seeking reassurance or preventing perceived harm to the relationship (11).

Remember, seeking support from mental health professionals is essential for effective management and treatment of OCD. If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD symptoms, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder may manifest in various ways, typically involving both obsessions and compulsions. However, it’s important to note that individuals may experience either obsession symptoms, compulsion symptoms, or both. These manifestations often persist despite being irrational, consuming significant time, disrupting daily life, and impeding regular responsibilities.

Obsession Symptoms

Obsessions in OCD are characterized by persistent, intrusive thoughts, urges, or mental images that evoke distress or anxiety. These thoughts often disrupt one’s focus or activities, compelling individuals to engage in rituals or repetitive behaviors to alleviate discomfort (12). Common themes of obsessions include:

  • Doubt and difficulty coping with uncertainty.
  • Needing things to be orderly and symmetrical.
  • Fear of contamination or dirt.
  • Unwanted thoughts related to aggression, sexuality, or religion.
  • Intrusive thoughts of losing control and causing harm to oneself or others.

Examples of obsession symptoms may include:

  • Doubts about locking doors or turning off appliances.
  • Fear of contamination from touching objects touched by others.
  • Intrusive thoughts of committing harm or behaving inappropriately in public.
  • Unpleasant mental images of sexual or aggressive acts.
  • Intense distress when items are not arranged in a specific manner.
  • Avoidance of situations triggering obsessive thoughts, such as avoiding handshakes.

Compulsion Symptoms

In Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, compulsions are repetitive actions or mental tasks done in reaction to obsessions. These behaviors are meant to reduce anxiety or avoid harm, but they don’t provide long-term relief and may turn into strict routines (13).

Compulsions may include:

  • Checking.
  • Counting.
  • Washing and cleaning.
  • Following strict routines.
  • Seeking reassurance repeatedly.
  • Ordering or arranging items.

Examples of compulsion symptoms may include:

  • Excessive hand-washing leading to skin irritation.
  • Repeatedly checking locks to ensure security.
  • Checking appliances multiple times to confirm they are turned off.
  • Counting in specific patterns or sequences.
  • Repeating prayers, words, or phrases silently.
  • Attempting to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
  • Organizing items in a particular order repeatedly.

If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, seeking professional help is essential for effective management and improved quality of life.

OCD Symptoms In Children

Half of individuals with OCD begin experiencing symptoms during childhood. Recognizing these symptoms early is crucial for timely intervention and support. Here’s what you need to know about OCD symptoms in children:

  • Unique Presentation: Children may display OCD symptoms differently from adults . For example, they might not recognize that their obsessions or compulsions are excessive. Children may also think that everyone experiences similar thoughts and urges. Certain obsessions may appear less conspicuous, often resembling typical aspects of child development such as magical thinking or fears about loved ones (14).
  • Varied Symptoms: Children with OCD often exhibit symptoms from multiple categories, making diagnosis and treatment more complex (15).
  • Association with Tics: Studies indicate that tics are more common in childhood-onset OCD cases, underscoring the importance of understanding the link between these conditions (16).
  • Treatment Approach: Treatment for pediatric OCD typically involves a combination of therapy, medication, or both, mirroring the approach used for adults (17).

If you suspect that your child may have OCD, consulting a therapist specializing in pediatric mental health is a crucial next step. Early intervention might significantly improve outcomes and quality of life for children with OCD.

Causes and Risk Factors of OCD

The exact causes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) remain a puzzle to researchers, but several factors are believed to play a role in its development. Here’s what we know:

  • Genetics: Research suggests that individuals with a first-degree relative (like a biological parent or sibling) who has OCD are more likely to develop the condition themselves. This risk is heightened if the relative experienced OCD symptoms during childhood or adolescence (18).
  • Childhood Trauma: Some research indicates a connection between childhood trauma, including experiences of abuse or neglect, and the onset of OCD symptoms later in life (19).
  • Brain Changes: Studies using imaging techniques have revealed differences in the structure and function of certain brain regions in individuals with OCD. Specifically, variances in the frontal cortex and subcortical structures have been observed. Furthermore, OCD shares associations with other neurological disorders affecting similar brain areas, such as Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, and epilepsy (20).
  • Personality Traits: Certain personality traits like difficulty in handling uncertainty, heightened sense of responsibility, or perfectionism may play a role in OCD. However, there’s some discussion about whether these traits are fixed or flexible and may evolve over time (21).
  • Childhood Abuse: Children who undergo abuse or traumatic experiences during childhood, such as bullying or neglect, are at a higher risk of developing OCD later in life (22).
  • PANDAS Syndrome: PANDAS stands for “pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections.” It encompasses a range of conditions that may manifest in children following strep infections like strep throat or scarlet fever. OCD is among the conditions linked to PANDAS (23).

Understanding these factors might provide insights into the development of OCD, but it’s essential to remember that each individual’s experience with the disorder is unique.

Diagnosis of OCD

If you’re experiencing obsessions or compulsions, seeking help from a trained mental health professional is the first step towards diagnosis and finding the most suitable treatment.

Discussing OCD symptoms may feel challenging, especially if previous attempts have been met with dismissal.

For example, sharing an obsessive thought with a loved one might have resulted in a reassuring response like, “Don’t worry, that won’t happen.” However, this well-meaning reassurance does little to alleviate the distress caused by the thought.

Similarly, explaining compulsive behaviors to a coworker, such as the need to keep desk items arranged in a specific manner, may lead to discomfort when they disregard these preferences. Subsequently, overhearing them describe your behavior as “strange” may intensify feelings of unease.

Contrary to these experiences, a mental health professional will approach your symptoms with understanding and empathy, without judgment.

During an evaluation, they will inquire about various aspects of your obsessions or compulsions, including:

  • Strategies you employ to ignore or suppress them
  • Whether the beliefs associated with OCD feel true to you
  • The amount of time these thoughts or behaviors consume daily
  • The impact of these obsessions and compulsions on your relationships and daily functioning

Additionally, they will inquire about any medications you are taking and other mental health or medical symptoms you may be experiencing, to rule out potential medication side effects or alternative conditions.

Several other mental health conditions share symptoms resembling OCD:

  • Trichotillomania entails persistent urges to pull out one’s hair (24).
  • Depression may feature intrusive thoughts, but typically without compulsive behaviors (25).
  • Body dysmorphic disorder involves preoccupation with perceived flaws in physical appearance and repetitive behaviors related to appearance (26).
  • Generalized anxiety disorder entails persistent worry about everyday concerns, which may lead to avoidance behaviors but not compulsions (27).
  • Hoarding disorder involves excessive acquisition of items and difficulty discarding them, though without distress associated with discarding. Individuals with OCD may collect or save items due to compulsions or fear of harm (28).
  • Tics, sudden repetitive movements, might co-occur with OCD. While OCD and tic disorders like Tourette syndrome often overlap, tic disorders may also occur independently of OCD (29).

Based on the gathered information, a mental health professional will determine whether OCD is the most accurate diagnosis and explore alternative diagnoses if necessary.

Treatment Options for OCD

Managing OCD is possible with various treatment options, even for those with severe cases. Mental health experts typically employ a combination of medication and psychotherapy tailored to individual needs. It’s crucial to follow the treatment plan advised by professionals as both medication and therapy require time to show results. While there isn’t a definitive cure for OCD, these treatments enable individuals to cope with symptoms effectively, maintain daily routines, and lead fulfilling lives.


Psychotherapy stands as a valuable treatment avenue for both adults and children grappling with OCD (30). Extensive research demonstrates the effectiveness of specific psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and related approaches, which may rival medication in efficacy (31). In some cases, combining psychotherapy with medication yields optimal results.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT, a form of talk therapy, empowers individuals to identify and challenge erroneous thought patterns, allowing for clearer perception and response to challenging situations. By questioning negative thoughts, understanding their impact on emotions and behaviors, and adopting healthier coping strategies, individuals might effectively manage their OCD symptoms. CBT, widely regarded as the “gold standard” in psychotherapy, is most effective when tailored to address the unique aspects of OCD (32).
  • Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP): Research underscores the effectiveness of ERP, a specialized form of CBT, in reducing compulsive behaviors, even among those less responsive to medication. ERP involves gradual exposure to triggering situations, such as touching contaminated objects, while refraining from engaging in compulsive rituals like excessive hand washing. While initial sessions may provoke anxiety, most individuals witness a decrease in compulsions as treatment progresses (33).
  • Support for Children with OCD: Children with OCD may require additional assistance from family members and healthcare providers in recognizing and managing their symptoms. Mental health professionals might collaborate with young children to develop strategies for stress management and enhance support networks, empowering them to effectively manage their OCD symptoms (34).

By embracing a comprehensive approach encompassing psychotherapy, medication, and supportive interventions, individuals with OCD may effectively manage their condition and lead fulfilling lives.


Medication typically involves the use of antidepressants that target serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain linked to both depression and OCD (35). These medications, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are widely used in treating OCD (36).

It’s important to note that the effects of antidepressant treatment may not be immediately noticeable and may take around 8 to 12 weeks before improvements in symptoms are observed (37). In some cases, higher doses of these medications than those typically used for depression may be necessary to effectively manage OCD symptoms. However, it’s crucial to be aware that these medications might sometimes lead to side effects such as headaches, nausea, or sleep disturbances (38).

Many individuals with OCD find that medication, especially when combined with psychotherapy, may significantly help in symptom management. Healthcare providers may adjust medication doses over time to minimize side effects or withdrawal symptoms. It’s essential not to discontinue medication without consulting your healthcare provider first. They may closely monitor your progress and make adjustments to your treatment plan as needed.

Prevention of OCD

If left untreated, OCD symptoms might worsen over time and impact your personal relationships and overall quality of life.

As per the DSM-5, individuals with “poor insight,” meaning they strongly believe in their OCD obsessions and compulsions, tend to have more challenging treatment journeys (39). Recognizing the significance of treatment becomes particularly crucial for those with poor insight.

Fortunately, seeking treatment often leads to improvements in OCD symptoms, enhancing day-to-day functioning and overall quality of life.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that treatment may pose challenges. Therapy, in particular, may evoke feelings of anxiety and distress. Despite these initial difficulties, it’s essential to remain committed to your treatment plan.

If therapy appears ineffective or if medication causes undesirable side effects, communicating openly with your therapist is essential. Exploring various treatment approaches may be necessary before discovering the one that yields the greatest improvement.

Collaborating with a compassionate therapist who comprehends your symptoms and individual requirements is fundamental to achieving progress.


In conclusion, living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder might be an immense challenge, impacting various aspects of daily life. However, it’s essential to recognize that individuals with OCD are not defined by their condition. They are resilient individuals battling against intrusive thoughts and compulsions every day. Understanding and compassion play crucial roles in supporting those affected by OCD. With proper treatment, therapy, and support from loved ones, those affected by OCD may lead fulfilling lives.