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What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

  • OCD is a mental health condition characterized by the presence of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
  • OCD affects approximately 2.2 to 4.4 million adults in the United States.
  • Treatment options include a combination of therapy, medication, and self-help strategies.

OCD is a common mental health condition that involves intrusive thoughts, images, and urges, accompanied by repetitive behaviors.

OCD affects around 1 to 2% of Americans, which means that approximately 2.2 to 4.4 million adults in the United States are living with OCD. It affects people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, making it a significant mental health concern in the country.


The symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can vary from person to person, but they generally fall into two categories: obsessions and compulsions.


These are intrusive and unwanted thoughts, mental images, or urges that repeatedly occur in the individual's mind. Obsessions can cause significant anxiety, distress, or discomfort. Examples of obsessions include:

  • Intrusive and undesired thoughts, images, and/or urges that cause distress and/or anxiety.
  • Fear of contamination or germs.
  • Concerns about symmetry, order, and/or preciseness.
  • Disturbing or aggressive thoughts related to harm or violence.
  • Unwanted sexual and/or religious thoughts.
  • Fear of making a mistake or being responsible for harm to oneself or others.


Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that individuals with OCD feel driven to perform in response to their obsessions. These behaviors are typically aimed at reducing or preventing the anxiety caused by obsessions. Common compulsions include:

  • Repetitive behaviors or mental acts performed in response to obsessions.
  • Excessive hand-washing or cleaning rituals.
  • Checking and rechecking doors, locks, or appliances.
  • Counting, repeating words or phrases, or mentally reviewing events.
  • Need for symmetry and arranging objects in a particular order.
  • Hoarding or excessive collecting of items.
  • Repeatedly seeking reassurance from others.

The cycle of OCD often involves obsessions triggering distress, leading to the performance of compulsions, which provide temporary relief from anxiety. However, this relief is short-lived, and the cycle continues, reinforcing the disorder. Both obsessions and compulsions can significantly impact daily life, causing interference with normal activities, relationships, and overall well-being.

Experiencing occasional intrusive thoughts or engaging in repetitive actions does not necessarily indicate OCD. The severity and the effect these symptoms have on your life are what set OCD apart from other mental illnesses. Obsessions and compulsions must be time-consuming, distressing/troubling, and significantly impair functioning in order for you to be diagnosed with this condition.

Treating OCD with Medication

The medications that work for OCD typically act on increasing serotonin. This is because OCD is thought to be at least partially caused or aggravated by low serotonin levels in the brain. Increasing serotonin may improve the communication and therefore help relieve the symptoms of OCD.

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Causes and risk factors of OCD

The exact cause of this mental health condition is not fully understood. However, some research suggests that a combination of genetic, neurological, and environmental factors may contribute to the development of OCD.

  • Biological Factors
    Some researchers suggest that differences in brain structure and functioning, including abnormalities in certain brain regions and neurotransmitter imbalances, may contribute to OCD. However, the precise mechanisms and how these differences relate to OCD are still not fully understood.
  • Genetic Factors

    There is evidence that OCD tends to run in families, indicating a genetic predisposition. However, despite numerous studies, specific genes responsible for OCD have not been consistently identified.


    In some children with OCD, a subgroup has shown a potential connection between the disorder and infections, particularly streptococcal infections. These infections can trigger an immune response that produces antibodies that mistakenly react with a specific brain region called the basal ganglia.

    This association is known as Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders associated with Streptococcal Infection (PANDAS). While subsequent studies have yielded mixed results, it is believed that PANDAS may trigger symptoms in children who are already predisposed to OCD, possibly due to genetic or other factors. Symptoms typically emerge quickly after a strep throat infection, within one to two weeks.

  • Environmental Factors
    Life events, such as trauma, stress, or significant changes, may play a role in the development or worsening of OCD symptoms in susceptible individuals. However, the specific environmental triggers and their impact on OCD are not well understood.
  • Chemical Imbalance
    The role of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood and anxiety, has been emphasized in OCD. While some evidence suggests that medications targeting serotonin can alleviate symptoms, the exact role and significance of serotonin in OCD are not fully understood.
  • Cognitive and behavioral factors
    Certain patterns of thinking and behavioral responses may influence the development and maintenance of OCD. For instance, some individuals who have OCD may have the propensity to interpret certain intrusive thoughts as significant and give them excessive value, which may result in anxiety and the need for compulsive actions to alleviate distress.

It's important to note that the causes of OCD are likely complex and multifaceted, involving a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Further research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of the precise causes and underlying mechanisms of OCD.


This condition is generally diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation conducted by a qualified mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. The diagnosis of OCD involves the following:

  • Initial assessment: Your mental health professional will speak with you to learn more about your symptoms, medical background, and overall well-being. The nature, frequency, and severity of your obsessions and compulsions, as well as how they affect daily living, may be discussed during this review.
  • Diagnostic criteria: Your specialist will refer to the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association. OCD is diagnosed when you meet the specific criteria for obsessions and compulsions. These criteria may include the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions that are time-consuming, cause distress, and significantly interfere with functioning.
  • Differential diagnosis: Other possible causes of your symptoms will be ruled out by your mental health specialist. This phase is crucial since some disorders, such as body dysmorphic disorders, anxiety disorders, or hoarding disorders, can exhibit characteristics that are similar to those of OCD. To provide effective therapy, it's important to distinguish between OCD and other conditions.
  • Assessing functional impairment: The impact of this condition’s symptoms on your daily functioning will be assessed. This includes evaluating the interference of your symptoms with work, relationships, social activities, and overall quality of life.
  • Collaboration with other professionals: In some cases, your mental health professional may consult with other healthcare providers, such as physicians, to rule out any underlying medical conditions that could be contributing to your symptoms.

It's important to remember that a self-diagnosis of OCD is insufficient for a proper diagnosis. Consult a mental health expert who can perform a comprehensive evaluation and diagnose you if you think you may have OCD or are exhibiting symptoms. Experts will assist you with the diagnosis procedure and make appropriate therapy plans depending on your individual requirements.

Treatment options

Treatment options for OCD typically involve a combination of therapy, medication, and self-help strategies. Here are the key treatment options:

It's essential to remember that while these risk factors raise the possibility that someone may acquire celiac disease, they don't guarantee that they will. Without these risk factors, celiac disease is still possible to develop, and not everyone who has these risk factors will also develop it.

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
    Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), particularly a type called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), is the go-to therapy for treating OCD. ERP gradually exposes individuals to situations or thoughts that trigger their obsessions and helps them resist engaging in their compulsive behaviors. This process helps individuals learn to tolerate anxiety without resorting to their usual compulsions, leading to a reduction in obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors over time. ERP has proven to be highly effective in helping individuals with OCD manage their symptoms and regain control over their lives.
  • Cognitive therapy

    Cognitive therapy, a component of CBT, focuses on helping you identify and challenge irrational or distressing thoughts associated with OCD. The aim is to develop healthier thinking patterns and beliefs that reduce the need for compulsive behaviors.

  • Medications
    Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are a drug class of medications used to help manage obsessions and compulsions, are therefore often prescribed for OCD . These medications, such as Fluoxetine (brand: Prozac) or Sertraline (Zoloft), can help regulate serotonin levels in your brain, reducing the severity of OCD symptoms. SSRIs are typically used in conjunction with therapy, and it may take several weeks, or 2 to 4 months, or longer to observe their full effects.

    Examples of SSRI medications include:

    • Citalopram (brand: Celexa)
    • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
    • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
    • Paroxetine (Paxil)
    • Sertraline (Zoloft)
    • Fluvoxamine

    Common side effects of SSRIs include:

    • Sexual dysfunctions, include decreased sexual desire, ejaculation difficulties, and/or erectile dysfunction
    • Sleepiness
    • Insomnia
    • Nausea
    • Dry mouth
    • Weakness
    • Tremor
    • Dizziness
    • Headaches
  • Support groups
    LBeing a part of support groups or taking part in group therapy for individuals who have OCD can give you a sense of unity and understanding. For those who suffer from OCD, sharing experiences, coping mechanisms, and mutual support can be beneficial.
  • Family therapy
    Family members' understanding of OCD and its effects on your life can be improved by including them in therapy. Family therapy can help with support, communication, and establishing a recovery-friendly environment.

OCD is often treated most successfully with a mix of therapies adapted to your specific needs and requirements. A trained mental health expert with experience treating this condition should be consulted before creating a customized treatment strategy.