Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, involves anxious thoughts or rituals you feel you can't control. If you have OCD, you may be plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts or images, or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals.
You may be obsessed with germs or dirt, so you wash your hands over and over. You may be filled with doubt and feel the need to check things repeatedly. You may have frequent thoughts of violence, and fear that you will harm people close to you. You may spend long periods touching things or counting; you may be pre-occupied by order or symmetry; you may have persistent thoughts of performing sexual acts that are repugnant to you; or you may be troubled by thoughts that are against your religious beliefs.
The disturbing thoughts or images are called obsessions, and the rituals that are performed to try to prevent or get rid of them are called compulsions. There is no pleasure in carrying out the rituals you are drawn to, only temporary relief from the anxiety that grows when you don't perform them.
A lot of healthy people can identify with some of the symptoms of OCD, such as checking the stove several times before leaving the house. But for people with OCD, such activities consume at least an hour a day, are very distressing, and interfere with daily life.
Most adults with this condition recognize that what they're doing is senseless, but they can't stop it. Some people, though, particularly children with OCD, may not realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary.
OCD afflicts about 3.3 million adult Americans.1 It strikes men and women in approximately equal numbers and usually first appears in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.2 One-third of adults with OCD report having experienced their first symptoms as children. The course of the disease is variable—symptoms may come and go, they may ease over time, or they can grow progressively worse. Research evidence suggests that OCD might run in families.3
Depression or other anxiety disorders may accompany OCD,2,4 and some people with OCD also have eating disorders.6 In addition, people with OCD may avoid situations in which they might have to confront their obsessions, or they may try unsuccessfully to use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves.4,5 If OCD grows severe enough, it can keep someone from holding down a job or from carrying out normal responsibilities at home.
OCD generally responds well to treatment with medications or carefully targeted psychotherapy. The disturbing thoughts or images are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to prevent or get rid of them are called compulsions. There is no pleasure in carrying out the rituals you are drawn to, only temporary relief from the anxiety that grows when you don't perform them.
What are the symptoms of OCD?
- Repeated thoughts or images about many different things, such as fear of germs, dirt, or intruders; violence; hurting loved ones; sexual acts; conflicts with religious beliefs; or being overly neat.
- Performing the same rituals over and over such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, counting, keeping unneeded items, or repeating the same steps again and again.
- Maintaining unwanted thoughts and behaviors they cannot control.
- Not getting pleasure from the behaviors or rituals but instead getting brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause.
- Spending at least an hour a day on the thoughts and rituals, which cause distress and get in the way of daily life.
When does OCD start?
For many people, OCD starts during childhood or the teen years. Most people are diagnosed at about age 19. Symptoms of OCD may come and go and be better or worse at different times.
Is there help?
There is help for people with OCD. The first step is to go to a doctor or health clinic to talk about symptoms. People who think they have OCD may want to bring this booklet to the doctor, to help them talk about their symptoms. The doctor will do an exam to make sure that another physical problem isn’t causing the symptoms. The doctor may make a referral to a mental health specialist.
There are different kinds of treatment for OCD. Doctors may ask people with OCD to seek psychotherapy with a psychologist, psychiatrist or licensed social worker. A type of therapy called behavior therapy is especially useful for treating OCD. It teaches a person different ways of thinking, behaving and reacting to situations that help them feel less anxious and fearful without having obsessive thoughts or acting compulsively.
Doctors also may prescribe medication to help treat OCD. It's important to know that some of these medicines may take several weeks to start working. The kinds of medicines used to treat OCD are antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines. Some of these medicines are used to treat other problems, such as depression, but also are helpful for OCD. Although these medicines often have mild side effects, they are usually not a problem for most people, especially if the dose starts off low and is increased slowly over time.
Some people do better with therapy, while others do better with medicine. Still others do best with a combination of the two. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment for you.
Why do people get OCD?
OCD sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some people have it, while others don’t. When chemicals in the brain are not at a certain level it may result in OCD. Medications can often help the brain chemicals stay at the correct levels.
To improve treatment, scientists are studying how well different medicines and therapies work. In one kind of research, people with OCD choose to take part in a clinical trial to help physicians find out what treatments work best for most people, or what works best for different symptoms. Usually, the treatment is free. Scientists are learning more about how the brain works, so that they can discover new treatments.
1Narrow WE, Rae DS, Regier DA. NIMH epidemiology note: prevalence of anxiety disorders. One-year prevalence best estimates calculated from ECA and NCS data. Population estimates based on U.S. Census estimated residential population age 18 to 54 on July 1, 1998. Unpublished.
2Robins LN, Regier DA, eds. Psychiatric disorders in America: the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. New York: The Free Press, 1991.
3The NIMH Genetics Workgroup. Genetics and mental disorders. NIH Publication No. 98-4268. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 1998.
4Regier DA, Rae DS, Narrow WE, et al. Prevalence of anxiety disorders and their comorbidity with mood and addictive disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry Supplement, 1998; (34): 24-8.
5Kushner MG, Sher KJ, Beitman BD. The relation between alcohol problems and the anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1990; 147(6): 685-95.
6Wonderlich SA, Mitchell JE. Eating disorders and comorbidity: empirical, conceptual, and clinical implications. Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 1997; 33(3): 381-90.