Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

An older black woman mournfully looks out her window

Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder experience patterns of intrusive, unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that cause them to perform certain specific behaviors over and over (compulsions). The combination of obsessions and compulsions eventually begin to disrupt daily activities and cause distress.

When a person with OCD tries to focus on something besides the obsessions, their distress and anxiety increase. Eventually, they will fall back to the same behaviors – compulsions – to relieve the stress, feeding into the cycle all over again.

A person’s obsessive thoughts often center around a theme.  For example, they may feel as though germs are assailing them all the time, so they so they wash their hands to alleviate the fear. Over time, the compulsions can even become harmful – such as washing one’s hands so often they become chapped and sore.

While OCD can cause shame and embarrassment, treatment is available and can help sufferers learn to manage their condition.

Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Most people have experienced more-than-usual worry about something in their lives. Many have routines in which they perform the same actions day after day. What’s different about obsessive-compulsive disorder is that these obsessions and compulsions occur so often that they become consuming, taking up a great deal of time and energy. Eventually, they begin to interfere in activities of daily living as well as social interactions, relationships, and school or work.

Obsession Symptoms

OCD obsessions usually intrude when a person is trying to do something else, and they often center around a theme. Common themes include:

  • Fear of germs, contaminants, or dirt
  • Requiring thing to be orderly or symmetrical
  • Difficulty dealing with the unknown
  • Intrusive thoughts about harming oneself or others

These themes play out in daily life. Examples include:

  • Being afraid of objects others have touched for fear of becoming contaminated
  • Constantly checking – Is the door locked? Is the stove off? Is the water still running?
  • Thoughts about acting aggressively and inappropriately in public
  • Stress when objects are out of place
  • Avoidance of circumstances that can trigger obsessions

Compulsion Symptoms

Compulsions are behaviors a person feels compelled to perform. For individuals with OCD, these actions become repetitive, time-consuming, and even harmful. What’s more, they offer no relief – or only temporary relief – from anxiety. Just like obsessions, compulsions have common themes among people with OCD. They include:

  • Checking
  • Counting
  • Cleaning, washing, and keeping things in order
  • Keeping a strict routine
  • Looking for validation

Examples of compulsive symptoms include:

  • Checking repeatedly to ensure that the lights are off or the doors are locked
  • Handwashing until the skin becomes raw or cracked
  • Arranging a collection so that each item faces the same way and become distressed when they don’t
  • Constantly counting things, such as tiles in the floor or letters in words

Causes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

While the causes of OCD aren’t fully understood, primary theories include genetics, biology and learned behaviors.

Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Treatment of the symptoms of OCD can prevent it from becoming so disruptive that it interrupts the sufferer’s daily life. There are two primary courses of treatment.


Psychiatric medications can help inhibit obsessive thoughts and control compulsions. Antidepressants are often given first and may be supplemented by anti-anxiety or other medications.


Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often prescribed for OCD. Treatment involves exposing a person to an obsession or fear gradually. This treatment helps the patient come to terms with OCD and begin to recognize obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.