What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

People who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) suffer from recurrent thoughts that cause a significant amount of distress. These thoughts are seen as inappropriate, intrusive, and unwanted. People with OCD feel plagued by these obsessive thoughts, even though they typically see them as irrational at least some of the time. Children with OCD, and some adults, may have little or no realization that their thought is unreasonable.

In order to lessen their distress or to prevent their OCD thought from coming true, they spend a significant amount of time performing repetitive behaviors (compulsions). These acts can be physical, such as checking door locks, washing hands, cleaning, ordering, tapping, and so on, or they can be mental behaviors such as counting, praying, thinking “good” thoughts, and such.

The content of the obsessions and compulsions can be almost anything. Some common themes include:

  • Aggressive/Violent Obsessions
  • Contamination Obsessions
  • Sexual Obsessions
  • Religious Obsessions
  • Symmetry/Exactness Obsessions
  • Superstitious Obsessions
  • Perfectionistic Obsessions

There are two primary treatments for OCD: medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Medication treatment typically includes a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), though other medications may be prescribed, as well.

CBT consists of:

  1. Assessment (identifying your OCD symptoms and their severity level)
  2. Education (learning about what causes and maintains OCD and how it is treated)
  3. Exposure with Response Prevention (facing your feared obsessions without giving in to compulsions)

OCD can be a debilitating disorder…that’s the bad news. The good news is that with motivation and proper treatment, most people can learn to effectively manage their symptoms.

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.


References: DSM-IV, Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale

For more information on OCD, go to www.adaa.org or www.ocfoundation.org .