Most people have obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors at some point in their lives, but that does not mean that we all have “some OCD.” In order for a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder to be made, this cycle of obsessions and compulsions becomes so extreme that it consumes a lot of time and gets in the way of important activities that the person values.

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.

From the DSM-5

What causes OCD?

The exact cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder is unknown, but researchers believe that activity in several portions of the brain is responsible. Genetics are thought to be very important. If you, your parent or a sibling, have obsessive-compulsive disorder, there's around a 25% chance that another immediate family member will have it.

  • Biology. OCD may be a result of changes in your body's own natural chemistry or brain functions.
  • Genetics. OCD may have a genetic component, but specific genes have yet to be identified.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase the risk of developing or triggering obsessive-compulsive disorder include:

    • Family history. Eating disorders are significantly more likely to occur in people who have parents or siblings who've had an eating disorder.
    • Stressful life events. If you've experienced traumatic or stressful events, your risk may increase. This reaction may, for some reason, trigger the intrusive thoughts, rituals and emotional distress characteristic of OCD.
    • Other mental health disorders. OCD may be related to other mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse or tic disorders.

    How to Recognize OCD

    Obsessions are intrusive, irrational thoughts or impulses that repeatedly occur. People with these disorders know these thoughts are irrational but are afraid that somehow they might be true. These thoughts and impulses are upsetting, and people may try to ignore or suppress them. Examples of obsessions include:

    Thoughts about harming or having harmed someone
    Doubts about having done something right, like turning off the stove or locking a door
    Unpleasant sexual images
    Fears of saying or shouting inappropriate things in public

    Compulsions are repetitive acts that temporarily relieve the stress brought on by an obsession. People with these disorders know that these rituals don't make sense but feel they must perform them to relieve the anxiety and, in some cases, to prevent something bad from happening. Like obsessions, people may try not to perform compulsive acts but feel forced to do so to relieve anxiety. Examples of compulsions include:

    Hand washing due to a fear of germs
    Counting and recounting money because a person is can't be sure they added correctly
    Checking to see if a door is locked or the stove is off
    "Mental checking" that goes with intrusive thoughts is also a form of compulsion

    Know the Facts

    3 million

    About 1 in 100 adults (3 million) in the US currently have OCD. About 1 in 200 kids and teens currently have OCD.  

    Kids live with their OCD symptoms for an average of two and a half years before getting help from a professional. A survey of adults with OCD reported that it took an average of 14 to 17 years for them to find effective treatment.

    14 to 17 years

    Once connected to appropriate treatment, the majority of people with OCD (around 70%) will benefit from therapy, medicine, or a combination of the two.

    Common Related Conditions

    Body Dysmorphic Disorder

    This disorder is characterized by an obsession with physical appearance. BDD is characterized by obsessing over one's appearance and body image, often for many hours a day. Any perceived flaws cause significant distress and ultimately impede on the person's ability to function. 

    Hoarding Disorder

    This disorder is defined by the drive to collect a large amount of useless or valueless items, coupled with extreme distress at the idea of throwing anything away. 


    Trichotillomania is the compulsive urge to pull out (and possibly eat) your own hair, including eyelashes and eyebrows. Some people may consciously pull out their hair, while others may not even be aware that they are doing it. A similar illness is excoriation disorder, which is the compulsive urge to scratch or pick at the skin.

    Treatment Options

    Obsessive-compulsive disorder treatment may not result in a cure, but it can help bring symptoms under control so that they don't rule your daily life. Depending on the severity of OCD, some people may need long-term, ongoing or more intensive treatment.The two main treatments for OCD are psychotherapy and medications. Often, treatment is most effective with a combination of these.


    Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy, is effective for many people with OCD. Exposure and response prevention (ERP), a component of CBT therapy, involves gradually exposing you to a feared object or obsession. ERP takes effort and practice, but you may enjoy a better quality of life once you learn to manage your obsessions and compulsions.


    Certain psychiatric medications can help control the obsessions and compulsions of OCD. Most commonly, antidepressants are tried first, which are approved by the FDA to treat OCD. However, your doctor may prescribe other psychiatric medications

    Lifestyle Changes

    Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a chronic condition, which means it may always be part of your life. While OCD warrants treatment by a professional, you can do some things for yourself to build on your treatment plan:

    From the Mayo Clinic

    Practice what you learn.

    Work with your mental health professional to identify techniques and skills that help manage symptoms, and practice these regularly.

    Take your medications as directed.

    Even if you're feeling well, resist any temptation to skip your medications. If you stop, OCD symptoms are likely to return.

    Pay attention to warning signs.

    You and your doctor may have identified issues that can trigger your OCD symptoms. Make a plan so that you know what to do if symptoms return. Contact your doctor or therapist if you notice any changes in symptoms or how you feel.

    Check first before taking other medications.

    Contact the doctor who's treating you for OCD before you take medications prescribed by another doctor or before taking any over-the-counter medications, vitamins, herbal remedies or other supplements to avoid possible interactions.

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