Other disorders

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disorder in which a person experiences intrusive thoughts or images - obsessions - and develops ritualistic behaviours - compulsions - to try to cope with the anxiety that these intrusive thoughts cause. A person with OCD usually realizes that their obsessions are unreasonable or illogical but can do little to stop the thoughts or the behaviours that result.

What are the symptoms of OCD?
The symptoms of OCD differ from person to person, depending on their individual anxieties and coping behaviours.

The most common "obsessions" among those with OCD include:

  • fear of contamination
  • fear of not having completed a specific action that could result in harm (e.g., "Did I turn off the oven?")
  • fear of making a mistake
  • fear that something bad could happen if things are in an incorrect order or sequence
  • fear of inappropriate sexual or religious thoughts
  • fear of harming oneself or others

The most common "compulsions" are:

  • excessive cleaning and washing
  • checking and re-checking behaviour or actions
  • ordering and arranging objects
  • hoarding possessions
  • repeating phrases or other mental acts (e.g., checking off lists over and over)

Who gets OCD?
OCD is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder. It happens about equally among men and women, and can symptoms can appear at any age. Boys and girls can develop OCD in their childhood or teens; it has been noted in children as young as 2 or 3 years of age.

What are the causes of OCD?
A combination of genetic, learning and biological factors likely play into a person's individual risk profile for OCD. For one thing, a person is at higher risk if related by blood to someone with OCD. This could be due to biological similarities (lower levels of the brain's chemical messenger serotonin or increased activity in certain regions of the brain) or because of exposure to behaviours you learned from a family member. The controversial theory that children are more prone to OCD after having strep throat has not been proven.

How is OCD diagnosed?
If you're worried that you might have OCD, see your doctor and talk about the symptoms you've experienced. Your doctor will likely perform a thorough examination to rule out other possible causes. According to the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic reference guide, the DSM-5, a person with an OCD diagnosis has "recurrent obsessions or compulsions that are severe enough to be time-consuming or cause marked distress or significant impairment."

How can OCD be treated?
Your treatment goal for obsessive-compulsive disorder should be to function better on a daily basis and to reduce your symptoms. A treatment plan for OCD may include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), medications, or a combination of therapy and medication.

Exposure and response prevention is a type of behavioural therapy often used to treat OCD. The "exposure" portion of therapy involves a person facing up to the thing they fear or dread - but in a gradual and controlled way so the person's fear response lessens through repeated exposure. In the "response prevention" element of therapy, a person learns new ways to cope with obsessions without resorting to ritualistic behaviours.

While healthy lifestyle habits and social support may not cure OCD, they may help you to manage your symptoms. Learn more about your anxiety treatment options.