Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), More Common Than You Think

What is obsessive compulsive disorder?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that may result in repetitive behaviors (compulsions).

Obsessive compulsive disorder is common. It affects over 2% of the population, more than one in 50 people. More people suffer from OCD than from bipolar depression.

Obsessions themselves are the unwanted, intrusive thoughts or impulses that seem to "pop up" repeatedly in the mind. These intruding thoughts can be fears, unreasonable worries, or a need to do things. When a person is tense or under stress, the obsessions can worsen.

Compulsions are the behaviors that may result from the obsessive thoughts. The most common compulsions include repetitive washing (hands or objects) and "checking" behaviors. Compulsions may be rituals, repeating certain actions, counting, or other recurrent behaviors. Some people with obsessive compulsive disorder are obsessed with germs or dirt.

What are the symptoms and signs of obsessive compulsive disorder?

People with obsessive compulsive disorder can have mild or severe symptoms. Those with mild obsessive compulsive disorder may be able to control their compulsive behaviors for certain periods of time (for example, at work) and may successfully hide their condition. However, in severe cases, obsessive compulsive disorder can interfere with social and occupational functioning and cause disability.

The symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder often appear early in life. They most commonly begin in childhood, the teen years, or early adulthood. Males and females of all races are equally affected, and obsessive compulsive disorder generally persists throughout life, with fluctuations in severity.

What causes obsessive compulsive disorder?

While the exact cause of obsessive compulsive disorder is not known, scientific evidence points to a possible biological abnormality. Levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters have been shown to be imbalanced in people with OCD.

Obsessive compulsive disorder can also be accompanied by other anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, or other psychological conditions. Some people with obsessive compulsive disorder are able to understand that their thoughts and actions are unrealistic and inappropriate, while others lack this insight.

How is obsessive compulsive disorder treated?

Antidepressants that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin can provide relief for up to 75% of people with obsessive compulsive disorder. The most commonly prescribed drugs are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), and fluoxetine (Prozac). Behavioral therapy can also be an effective treatment option. Psychotherapy for obsessive compulsive disorder may involve insight into the disruptive thoughts and impulses and confrontation with them in an attempt to control the associated compulsions.

Medically reviewed by Marina Katz, MD; American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology


"Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder." WebMD.com. Feb. 20, 2012. <https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/obsessive-compulsive-disorder>.