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What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Have you ever had a thought that keeps on repeating no matter how much you try to ignore it? Or maybe you sometimes feel like you’ve developed an obsession for a specific activity or routine?

Experts define obsessions as unwanted, repeated, and persistent thoughts, memories, images, or urges.

For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), obsessive thoughts can generate anxiety and distress. Since it’s challenging to go about their daily activities while dealing with an annoying, anxiety-generating thought, people with OCD often compensate with compulsive behaviors.

Compulsive behaviors are persistent and repetitive acts, or ‘rituals’ that lower anxiety and generate a sense of satisfaction or relief.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be a long-lasting condition in which the person has persistent, uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) followed by behaviors that he/she needs to repeat (compulsions or ‘rituals’) to lower anxiety.

People with this condition may experience obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, or both.

Signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The symptoms of OCD can interfere with all aspects of life, such as work, school, relationships, and personal growth.

There are two symptoms that characterize OCD: obsessions and compulsions. But let’s take a moment to figure out how these symptoms might look like.


  • Fear of dirt, germs, microbes, and contamination
  • Uncontrollable urge to hurt other people
  • Exaggerated sense of responsibility for the safety of others
  • Intense and often strange thoughts related to sexuality or religion
  • Constant feeling that something terrible is about to happen
  • Uncontrollable desire to do everything perfectly


  • Washing, rinsing, and cleaning
  • Obsessive hand washing
  • Counting, or arranging objects in a specific order
  • Hoarding
  • Obsessive praying
  • Checking things repeatedly

For a thought or impulse to be considered obsessive, it needs to be repetitive, persistent, and intrusive. And the same goes for compulsive behaviors. 

How is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Treated?

When dealing with patients who struggle with OCD, mental health professionals recommend medication, psychotherapy, or a mix of both.


One of the most frequently used approaches for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

This approach helps people with OCD understand the irrational nature of their obsessive thoughts and challenge their core beliefs about danger, control, and other aspects that might be related to their condition.

To manage compulsive behaviors, patients are encouraged to engage in exposure and response prevention. That involves exposing themselves gradually to anxiety-inducing stimuli and refraining from any compulsive behaviors that might lower anxiety.


Many healthcare experts believe that obsessive-compulsive disorder is, in part, the result of neurochemical imbalances. And that’s why pharmacological treatments are sometimes the only way in which OCD sufferers can get a handle on their obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

For people with OCD, psychiatrists prescribe medication designed to alter the quantity of neurotransmitters produced by the brain.


Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.

If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.

And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.

Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:

  • Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
  • Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
  • Encourage resilience and self-management
  • Identify and change negative behaviors
  • Identify and encourage positive behaviors
  • Heal pain from past trauma
  • Figure out goals and waypoints
  • Build self-confidence

Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?

Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.

So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.

Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.


Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:

  • Call your mental health specialist.
  • Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
  • Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
  • Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.

If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:

  • Make sure someone stays with that person.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.

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