Obsessive-compulsive disorder, also referred to as OCD, is a mental disorder characterized by recurrent, persistent obsessions and/or compulsions. In this article we will explore the signs and symptoms of OCD and what kinds of treatment are available for this condition.
Obsessions are repetitive and unwanted intrusive thoughts, impulses, or urges that keep coming into the person’s mind, causing discomfort and distress. An example of an obsession would be the recurring distressing thought that one’s hands are dirty, even after having washed one’s hands 10 times in a row. Compulsions are behaviors that the person feels compelled to repeat over and over again in response to an obsession. Continuing with our example, the person with OCD who is struggling with the obsession that their hands are dirty may respond by washing their hands yet an 11th time in hopes that this will finally make the obsession go away. Unfortunately engaging in ongoing compulsive behavior of this type will actually make the OCD symptoms worse, not better.
Clinically significant OCD can be highly disruptive to the afflicted individual as well as to those around him or her. OCD sufferers typically spend at least an hour a day engaging in ritualized thoughts or behaviors. Their symptoms interfere with social relationships, work, school, or other important areas of life functioning.
Diagnosing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
OCD should not be confused with being other behavior patterns such as being overly neat, precise, or demanding. Excessive worrying, ruminating about negative thoughts, and engaging in stereotyped behavior such as repetitively crossing one’s fingers or twirling one’s hair are not necessarily signs of OCD. Accurate diagnosis of OCD should be made by a trained mental health professional who is qualified to rule out other psychological and medical conditions that may look similar to true OCD.
Patients who are diagnosed with OCD are at higher than average lifetime risk of developing other conditions. 76% of patients with OCD are at risk of developing an additional anxiety disorder such as panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or a specific phobia. 63% of OCD patients are at risk of developing depression or bipolar disorder, and 30% of OCD patients also have a tic disorder. 12% of individuals with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder also have OCD. Approximately 25% of OCD patients also abuse drugs and/or alcohol.
Getting Help with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
There are highly effective psychological and medication treatments for OCD. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are effective psychological treatments for OCD. Various types of antidepressant medications are commonly used to treat OCD including: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, and serotonin partial agonist reuptake inhibitors. Some patients respond well to psychotherapy or medications alone, and others will get best outcomes with a combination of psychotherapy and medication management.
Other treatments may include attending an Intensive Outpatient Program, a Partial Hospitalization Program, a Residential Treatment Program, or even inpatient hospitalization in severe cases.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders : DSM-5. Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Association.
Mancebo, M.C., Grant, J.E. et al. (2009). Substance use disorders in an obsessive compulsive disorder clinical sample. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(4), 429-435.
Stahl, S.M. (2014). Prescriber’s Guide, 5th Edition. Cambridge University Press. https://stahlonline.cambridge.org.