obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterised by distressing and intrusive thoughts, often accompanied by unwanted compulsive behaviours. These behaviours may include repetitive safety checks or avoidance of germs.

OCD affects approximately 2% of the population, with symptoms typically emerging during childhood or adolescence. It is uncommon for OCD to develop after the age of 40.

OCD falls under the category of anxiety disorders and is one of several conditions characterised by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

Living with OCD can have a profound impact on an individual’s overall well-being and quality of life.

What is OCD?

OCD is a mental health condition characterised by obsessions, compulsions, distressing actions, and repetitive thoughts. These symptoms can create difficulties for individuals in carrying out their daily routines.

Individuals with OCD typically:

– Experience thoughts, images, or urges that they feel unable to control.

– Do not desire to have these intrusive thoughts and feelings.

– Encounter significant discomfort, which may include fear, disgust, doubt, or a strong belief that things must be done in a specific manner.

– Devote substantial time to focusing on these obsessions and engaging in compulsions, which can disrupt personal, social, and professional activities.


OCD can manifest differently from person to person, and it may involve the following aspects:

Concern with checking

Individuals with OCD may experience a variety of compulsions, including:

– Repeatedly checking for potential problems, such as ensuring that taps, alarms, door locks, house lights, and appliances are in proper working order to prevent leaks, damage, or fire hazards.

– Engaging in excessive body checking to detect any signs of illness or abnormalities.

– Feeling compelled to verify the accuracy or authenticity of memories, often by repeatedly reviewing or seeking reassurance from others.

– Frequently checking and reviewing communication channels, such as emails, out of fear of having made a mistake or inadvertently offending the recipient.

Fears of contamination

Certain individuals with OCD experience an ongoing and overpowering urge to engage in excessive washing. They may harbour intense fears that objects they touch are contaminated.

As a result, the following behaviours can emerge:

– Excessive tooth brushing or hand washing beyond what is necessary for hygiene purposes.

– Frequent and repetitive cleaning of various areas in the house, including the bathroom, kitchen, and other rooms.

– Avoidance of crowded places due to the fear of contracting germs or coming into contact with potentially contaminated surfaces.

Additionally, some individuals may feel a sense of contamination if they believe they have been mistreated or criticised by others. In an attempt to alleviate this feeling, they may resort to washing rituals.


This entails individuals experiencing difficulty in discarding used or seemingly useless possessions.

Intrusive thoughts

This pertains to individuals experiencing a sense of powerlessness in controlling repetitive and unwanted thoughts. These thoughts may encompass violent themes, including suicide or causing harm to others.

While these thoughts can be distressing, it is important to note that individuals with this type of OCD are unlikely to engage in actions that reflect these violent thoughts.

Furthermore, individuals may also experience unfounded fears, such as being a paedophile, despite the absence of any supporting evidence.

Symmetry and orderliness

Individuals with this form of OCD may have a compelling need to arrange objects in a specific order to prevent discomfort or harm.

For instance, they might engage in repetitive actions of rearranging items on a shelf, such as books, in an effort to alleviate their anxiety or distress.


OCD encompasses obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of both, which can lead to distress and hinder an individual’s ability to carry out everyday tasks.

Let’s delve into a deeper understanding of obsessions and compulsions.


While it is natural for individuals to experience worries, for those with OCD, these worries and anxieties can become overwhelming, making it challenging to carry out daily activities.

Some common themes that trigger anxiety in individuals with OCD include:

– Contamination fears, such as concerns about bodily fluids, germs, dirt, or other substances.

– Fear of losing control, which may involve apprehension regarding acting on impulses to self-harm or harm others.

– Perfectionism, characterised by an intense focus on exactness, fear of losing things, or an obsessive need to remember everything.

– Harm-related obsessions, including the fear of being responsible for a catastrophic event.

– Unwanted sexual thoughts, encompassing intrusive thoughts about inappropriate or taboo activities.

– Religious or superstitious obsessions, such as anxiety about offending God or a compulsion to avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk.

These obsessive thoughts can trigger compulsive behaviours as individuals attempt to alleviate their anxiety or prevent feared outcomes.


It’s important to note that not all repetitive behaviours are considered compulsions. Many individuals use repetitive behaviours, like following bedtime routines, as a way to manage their daily lives.

However, for individuals with OCD, the need to engage in repetitive behaviours is intense, occurs frequently, and consumes a significant amount of time. These behaviours may take on a ritualistic nature.

Here are some examples of compulsions commonly seen in OCD:

– Excessive washing and cleaning, including frequent handwashing.

– Continuously monitoring the body for symptoms or signs of illness.

– Repeating routine activities, such as repeatedly getting up from a chair.

– Mental compulsions, such as repeatedly reviewing or analysing past events in one’s mind.

These compulsive behaviours are driven by the individual’s need to reduce anxiety or prevent perceived negative outcomes.

OCD in children

The initial indications of OCD typically emerge during adolescence, although there are instances where symptoms manifest in childhood.

Children and young individuals with OCD may encounter various complications, including:

– Low self-esteem resulting from the distress caused by OCD symptoms.

– Disruption of routines due to the time-consuming nature of compulsive behaviours.

– Challenges in completing schoolwork, potentially affecting academic performance.

– Physical health issues arising from stress and anxiety.

– Difficulties in establishing and maintaining friendships and other relationships.

While OCD may be more prevalent in males than females during childhood, by adulthood, it affects both genders at similar rates.


The exact cause of OCD is not known according to experts, but several theories have been proposed. These theories suggest that a combination of genetic, neurological, behavioural, cognitive, and environmental factors may contribute to the development of OCD.

Genetic causes

There is evidence to suggest a familial pattern in OCD, indicating a potential genetic link that experts are actively investigating.

Imaging studies have provided insights into the distinctive brain functioning of individuals with OCD. Certain genes that influence the brain’s response to neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin may also contribute to the development of the disorder. Further research is being conducted to better understand the role of these genetic factors in causing OCD.

In certain cases, OCD symptoms can manifest in children following an infection, including group A streptococcal infections such as strep throat, Lyme disease, or the H1N1 flu virus. Clinicians refer to this presentation of OCD symptoms as paediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS).

In children with PANS, the symptoms typically arise suddenly and rapidly intensify within a period of 24 to 72 hours. Subsequently, these symptoms may temporarily subside but can reappear at a later time.

Behavioural causes

According to a theory, individuals with OCD may develop a pattern of avoiding fear-inducing situations or objects by engaging in rituals or repetitive behaviours to reduce their perceived risk.

The initial fear response often arises during times of intense stress, such as experiencing a traumatic event or a significant loss. As the person begins to associate specific objects or circumstances with this fear, they develop a tendency to avoid those triggers, ultimately shaping the pattern of OCD behaviour.

It is worth noting that this pattern of fear avoidance and ritualistic behaviour may be more prevalent among individuals who have a genetic predisposition for the disorder.

Cognitive causes

Another theory suggests that OCD begins when individuals misinterpret their own thoughts.

While it is common for people to have unwelcome or intrusive thoughts occasionally, individuals with OCD tend to attribute excessive importance or significance to these thoughts.

For instance, consider a person who is caring for an infant under significant stress and starts experiencing intrusive thoughts of accidentally harming the baby.

Typically, a person would dismiss such thoughts, recognizing them as inconsequential. However, in individuals with OCD, these thoughts persist and are perceived as having unwarranted significance.

obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD

As a result, individuals with OCD may develop a belief that the action or event depicted in the thought is likely to occur. In response, they engage in excessive and repetitive behaviors to prevent the perceived threat or danger from happening.

Environmental causes

Stressful life events have the potential to trigger OCD in individuals who have a predisposition, whether it be genetic or otherwise.

Numerous individuals have reported that their OCD symptoms emerged within a six-month period following events such as:

– Childbirth

– Complications during pregnancy or delivery

– Severe conflicts or disputes

– Serious illnesses

– Traumatic brain injuries

Additionally, it is worth noting that OCD can co-occur with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These two conditions may manifest together in some individuals, further complicating their mental health challenges.


When diagnosing OCD, doctors typically consider specific criteria, including:

– The presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both.

– Obsessions and compulsions that consume a significant amount of time or cause significant distress or impairment in various areas of life, such as social, occupational, or other important settings.

– Ensuring that the symptoms of OCD are not attributed to the use of substances or medications.

– Ruling out the possibility of symptoms being better explained by another health issue.

It is important to note that various other disorders, such as depression and anxiety, share similar features with OCD and can co-occur with OCD in some cases. Therefore, a comprehensive evaluation is necessary to differentiate and accurately diagnose OCD.


Effective treatments are available for OCD, and the most suitable approach depends on the individual’s specific set of symptoms and the impact they have on their life and well-being. Several effective treatment options for OCD include:

– Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of therapy focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs associated with OCD. It includes exposure and response prevention (ERP), which involves gradually exposing the person to their fears and preventing the accompanying compulsive behaviors.

– Medications: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed medications for OCD. They help regulate serotonin levels in the brain, reducing symptoms of OCD.

– Combination therapy: In some cases, a combination of CBT and medication may be recommended for the most effective treatment outcomes.

– Other therapeutic approaches: Some individuals may benefit from other therapeutic techniques, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or mindfulness-based interventions.

It is crucial for individuals with OCD to work closely with mental health professionals to determine the most appropriate and effective treatment plan for their specific needs.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

This form of psychotherapy, commonly known as CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy), is designed to help individuals modify their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

CBT for OCD may encompass two main treatments: exposure and response prevention (ERP) and cognitive therapy.

ERP involves:

– Exposure: Exposing the individual to situations or objects that trigger fear and anxiety. Through repeated exposure, habituation occurs, leading to a decrease or elimination of anxiety over time.

– Response: Assisting the individual in resisting the urge to engage in compulsive behaviours as a response to their obsessions.

Cognitive therapy begins by encouraging the person to identify and reevaluate their beliefs regarding the consequences of performing or refraining from compulsive behaviours.

Subsequently, the therapist helps the person:

– Examine the evidence that supports and contradicts their obsession.

– Identify cognitive distortions related to the obsession.

– Develop less threatening alternative responses to intrusive thoughts, images, or ideas.

Through these therapeutic techniques, individuals can gradually change their thought patterns and behaviours, leading to a reduction in OCD symptoms.


There are several medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), that can be effective in treating OCD. These medications are a type of antidepressant.

Here are some examples of SSRIs commonly prescribed for OCD:

– Escitalopram (Lexapro)

– Fluvoxamine (Luvox)

– Paroxetine (Paxil)

– Fluoxetine (Prozac)

– Sertraline (Zoloft)

It’s important to note that higher doses of these medications may be prescribed for OCD compared to depression. However, it may take up to three months before individuals notice significant improvements in their symptoms.

Around half of the individuals with OCD may not respond adequately to treatment with SSRIs alone, and in such cases, doctors may also prescribe antipsychotic medications as an adjunct.

Furthermore, some researchers have explored the potential benefits of combining the tuberculosis drug D-cycloserine (Seromycin) with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for treating OCD. This combination has also shown promise in assisting individuals with social anxiety.


If a person with mild OCD does not receive treatment, there is a possibility that their symptoms may improve over time. However, for individuals with moderate or severe OCD, symptoms are less likely to improve and may even worsen without proper treatment.

It is important to note that while treatment can be effective in managing OCD, it is often an ongoing process. In some cases, OCD symptoms may reoccur later in life, necessitating further treatment and support.

Regardless of the severity of symptoms, it is crucial for anyone experiencing OCD-like symptoms to seek professional care and guidance. Mental health professionals can provide appropriate diagnosis, treatment options, and ongoing support to help individuals manage their OCD effectively.

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