Woman with OCD washing hands.

Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

If your obsessions and compulsions are affecting your quality of life, it’s time to take control. Talk to your health care provider and get the treatment and support you deserve.

Many of us have heard of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This term is often used in an off-handed way to describe something you do a lot, like washing your hands or having a cleaning ritual you repeat every day.

But while some people use the term “OCD” to describe these more typical behaviors, OCD actually is a mental illness that can interfere with daily activities and cause significant distress for people living with it. It’s important to understand more about what OCD really is, what symptoms to look out for, and who is at risk for developing it.

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD is characterized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness as repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions).

OCD often centers around certain themes, such as an excessive fear of germs. To ease your fears, you may compulsively wash your hands until they’re sore and chapped. Despite efforts to ignore or get rid of the thoughts or urges, for people with OCD the urges keep coming back and take up a great deal of time, often interfering with a person’s ability to function on a daily basis.

People with OCD may or may not realize that their obsessions and compulsions are excessive or unreasonable.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of OCD?

OCD comes in many forms, but according to the National Library of Medicine, symptoms may fall into a few different categories, such as checking (checking things repeatedly like locks, oven switches, etc.), contamination (fearing things that are dirty or having a compulsion to clean), ordering (needing to have things lined up in a certain way) and intrusive thoughts (having obsessive thoughts which may be violent or disturbing).

Symptoms vary from person to person and can vary in severity. Typically, OCD begins in the teen and young adult years, but it can start as early as childhood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with OCD may have symptoms of obsessions, compulsions or both.

Man with OCD cleaning the floor.Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges or mental images that cause anxiety. Common obsessions may include:

  • Fear of germs and contamination
  • Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion or harming yourself or others
  • A need to have things symmetrical or in a particular order
  • An inability to tolerate uncertainty

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. Common habits may include:

  • Doing tasks in a specific way or order every time or a certain number of times
  • Arranging objects to face a certain way and feeling intense stress when objects aren’t facing a certain way
  • Needing to count things like steps in certain patterns or over and over
  • Being scared to touch doorknobs, toilets or things other people have touched
  • Having specific rituals for washing and cleaning, like handwashing until your skin is raw
  • Double-checking doors or the stove repeatedly

It’s important to note that not all habits are compulsions. Many of us wonder if we forgot to turn off the stove and then go back to double-check it. Some of us like to have our cupboards or closets organized and neat. But people living with OCD generally can’t control their thoughts or behaviors, even if they realize it’s excessive. According to the National Institute of Health, someone with OCD:

  • Spends at least one hour a day on these thoughts or behaviors
  • Doesn’t get pleasure when performing the behaviors, but may feel brief relief from anxiety
  • Experiences significant problems in their daily life due to these thoughts or behaviors

What Are the Risk Factors for OCD?

The cause of OCD is unknown, but according to MedlinePlus, there are certain factors that may increase your risk for it, including:

  • Family history – People with a first-degree relative, such as a parent, sibling or child, who has OCD are at higher risk.
  • Brain structure – Imaging studies have shown that people with OCD have differences in certain parts of the brain.
  • Childhood trauma – Some studies have found a link between trauma in childhood, such as child abuse, and OCD.

In addition, research published by the National Library of Medicine suggests that trauma may be a significant source of OCD. The findings indicated the risk for OCD increases 10-fold in persons with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) MIRECC (Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center) research states that the co-occurrence of these disorders is common, with nearly 1 in 4 individuals with PTSD also experiencing OCD. This is often called trauma-related OCD and occurs after or near onset of PTSD.

According to Health.mil, some researchers have speculated that OCD behavior may be used to cope with, reduce and avoid trauma-related stimuli. PTSD and OCD share certain symptoms such as feelings of disgust or guilt, recurrent thoughts that induce distress, as well as behaviors done to reduce or neutralize distress such as avoidance, isolation and certain rituals.

What Steps Can I Take to Manage OCD?

Woman working with yoga teacher in studio.While there is no cure for OCD, you can manage how your symptoms affect your life.

Check out the National Institute of Mental Health for more details on the treatments available for OCD, including additional options when medication and therapy don’t seem to help.


If your obsessions and compulsions are affecting your quality of life, it’s time to take control. Talk to your health care provider to get the treatment and support you deserve.

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