What is Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – Symptoms and causes

anxious girl

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder in which people experience uncontrollable, repetitive thoughts and fears. The individual can become so preoccupied with these thoughts and fears that they start to have rituals or compulsions such as excessive hand washing to prevent their anxiety from returning. It can create further distress and anxiety due to the reliance on behaviors that most often aren’t effective in controlling OCD symptoms.

Symptoms of Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

1. Exposure to Obsessions

People with OCD might feel compelled to wash their hands for hours. They might also repeat thoughts about germs or illness, which can lead to the need for handwashing or other forms of cleaning. Obsessive thoughts can be challenging to ignore and often require more attention than other thoughts. People with OCD must seek treatment because it can prevent them from handling everyday tasks such as work, school, family, and social relationships.

2. Exposure to Compulsions

People with OCD may feel compelled to carry out specific behaviors such as hand washing, counting, checking, and cleaning. These behaviors are performed to reduce anxiety caused by their obsessive thoughts. Compulsions typically involve acting on a certain level of perfection that has been reached.

3. Distress

People with OCD may feel so worried by their obsessive thoughts or the need to perform their ritualistic behaviors they become highly distressed. It’s common for individuals to describe disgust, fear, and dread. In some cases, people might experience depression due to their OCD symptoms.

4. Impairment

If an individual’s obsessions and compulsions cause more distress than they can cope with, they’re said to have impaired functioning. They may feel unable to leave the house, work, or attend social events like weddings or parties. Despite feeling anxious and distressed, people with OCD often avoid seeking treatment because they’re fearful that their obsessions and rituals will return once they stop the behavior.

5. Persistent Disturbance

To be diagnosed with OCD, symptoms must repeatedly occur for six months or more. Symptoms also need to interfere with the person’s social, occupational, or other essential functions. If symptoms of OCD persist for at least one month, a diagnosis of the disorder is possible.

6. Physiological Responses

People with OCD also frequently experience physiological symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, and nausea. People can experience these symptoms without being anxious or distressed, which may make seeking help for their symptoms more difficult.

anger and obsession
Anger – Photo by: Patrik Nygren – Source: Flickr Creative Commons

Causes of OCD

1. Genes

Research has shown that OCD is strongly linked to genetics. It’s thought that the risk of developing OCD increases with an increasing family history of the disorder. Genetics don’t play a role in all cases of OCD, though, which makes it challenging to identify what causes some people to develop the disorder.

2. Brain Structure

Ongoing work suggests OCD symptoms are linked to abnormal activity in areas of the brain known as the periaqueductal gray and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Research also suggests OCD is linked to abnormal activity in the thalamus and amygdala.

3. Environment

The interaction between nature and nurture plays a role in the risk of developing OCD. If an individual has a first-degree relative, such as their parent, sibling, or child, diagnosed with OCD, there’s an increased risk of developing the disorder. Symptoms of OCD can start in childhood. However, some people might not experience symptoms until adulthood or when they start to have more responsibility.

4. Trauma

Studies have shown that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to develop OCD. The brain is believed to respond to trauma by over-producing chemicals called corticotrophin-releasing hormones. These hormones then trigger and maintain the changes seen in OCD.

5. Stress

Stressful life events often trigger OCD symptoms. Although an individual may not be consciously aware of the link between their symptoms and the event, the stress can contribute to OCD developing or becoming worse.

6. Diet

Foods such as gluten and casein have affected people with OCD. The results of studies investigating the connection between diet and OCD are inconsistent, though, so further research is needed before they can establish a clear link.

Methods of Treating OCD

therapy counseling

1. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can be used to treat several mental health conditions, including OCD. The goal of CBT is to help people understand and manage their symptoms to function more successfully. During CBT therapy, people with OCD will learn how to identify and change the thoughts that trigger their anxiety and alter the way they respond to these thoughts.

2. Exposure Response Prevention (ERP)

Exposure-response prevention (ERP) is a technique included in CBT that can also be used to treat OCD. ERP is based on the idea that people with OCD have been unintentionally conditioned to respond in a certain way to their obsessions and compulsions. People will be encouraged to expose themselves to their fears for them to learn that the anxiety caused by the obsession or compulsion does eventually fade away.

3. Medications

Several medications have been used to treat OCD. These include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Medications for OCD do not work for everyone, though, so it’s essential to work with a doctor to find the best option for you.

4. Therapy

Some people may prefer to seek therapy from a therapist rather than take medication. It’s important to remember that CBT is the best-known and most effective treatment for OCD, and doctors can provide it on a one-to-one basis or within a group setting.


OCD is a widespread and debilitating mental health condition, so it’s essential to recognize the symptoms if you think you might have them. If you feel that you’re experiencing the symptoms, talk to a therapist near you or online for more information about treatment.