While many people can get stuck on certain thoughts or engage in repetitive behaviors, it’s usually not disruptive to their lives, and can often even help them focus, become motivated, and accomplish tasks and goals through routine. But when we talk about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), this is not what we’re referring to.
OCD is an anxiety disorder. People who suffer from it experience recurring, disturbing, uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and fears; these are known as obsessions. They engage in repetitive behaviors to try to get rid of these obsessive thoughts; these are known as compulsions. Failure to complete compulsions results in extreme distress. These patterns are frequent and/or severe enough to be disruptive to daily life.
Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder typically experience obsessions and engage in compulsions. However, some have only one or the other to an unreasonable or excessive degree.
Signs and Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
The types of obsessions and compulsions people experience with OCD vary from person to person. That said, there are a number of very common ones. People usually experience at least a few different obsessions and compulsions. They believe that certain negative consequences will arise if they don’t take certain actions to address their recurring worries.
The frequency and severity of symptoms varies greatly, not just from person to person, but often over the course of a person’s life. Stress, anxiety, and other factors can exacerbate the condition.
When obsessions and/or compulsions become distressing, paralyzing, time-consuming, or otherwise disruptive to daily life, a diagnosis of OCD is likely. Of course, only a trained mental health professional can make the diagnosis. The signs and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder are best understood by looking at the most common types of obsessions and compulsions.
Common Obsessions in OCD
- Fear of germs, disease, dirt, bodily fluids, chemicals, or other contamination
- Fear of being responsible for something terrible happening to a loved one
- Fear of losing control (acting violently against self or others, impulsively stealing, etc.)
- Fear of losing important things or forgetting important information
- Fear of offending god, committing blasphemy, or hyperfocusing on right versus wrong
- Hyperfocusing on evenness, symmetry, exactness, or other perfectionism
- Hyperfocusing on a need to know or remember
- Hyperfocusing on superstitions like unlucky numbers
- Inability to tolerate uncertainty
- Unwanted sexual thoughts
Common Compulsions in OCD
- Excessive hand washing, showering, tooth brushing, or other cleansing and grooming
- Excessively cleaning the home or objects
- Checking repeatedly that doors are locked, the stove is off, or similar things
- Checking repeatedly that something bad hasn’t happened
- Creating repetitive rituals around common motions, doing them a certain way or number of times (e.g., going in and out of doors, locking doors, getting up and down out of a chair, tapping, etc.)
- Repeatedly rereading or rewriting things
- Arranging or ordering items a certain way
- Mentally reviewing or praying to prevent bad things from happening
- Canceling “bad” things out with “good” things
Treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
If you or your child are experiencing obsessions and/or compulsions to the extent that they’re interfering with quality of life, consult a mental health professional. While there is no cure for OCD, the symptoms can be successfully managed. This generally requires a process of trial and error to find the right combination of treatments that work best for the individual. Common tools for the management of OCD include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Exposure and response prevention when possible, which entails exposing the patient to the object of fear (e.g., dirt) and learning ways to resist the compulsion used to cope with this fear
- Medications—often a type of antidepressant known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)