Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

What is obsessive compulsive disorder?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is diagnosed when an individual has a set of fears and anxieties that are disproportionate to reality, and that result in a series of repetitive behaviours that interfere with daily life. For example, most of us know that if we wash our hands before eating and after using the washroom, we can reduce our chances of illness to acceptable levels. Some people with OCD are unreasonably afraid of germs, and they feel driven to wash their hands repeatedly, to the extent that their skin becomes raw.

People with OCD often try to ignore their fears or force themselves to avoid their repetitive behaviours, but this generally leads to an even higher level of anxiety. This in turn can result in an escalation of the behaviours.

The treatment of OCD is highly specific to the individual, but it often involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication.


What are the symptoms?

Most people with OCD have symptoms that reflect a combination of obsessions and compulsions, although it is possible to only have symptoms of one without the other. The symptoms may start mildly and escalate over time, eventually having a profound effect on all aspects of daily living, including work and social functioning.



Obsessions are persistent thoughts or fears that can intrude on your thoughts and cause a great deal of distress. People deal with these thoughts in different ways: some try to ignore them, hoping they will go away. Others engage in compulsive behaviours, such as going back home several times to make sure the lights have been turned off.

Other examples of obsessions include the following:

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • The need to have clothing, books and other objects arranged in a certain way
  • A conviction that the stove is turned on or the water is running



Compulsions are a set of repetitive behaviours that are intended to reduce anxiety about the obsessions. Usually, engaging in these behaviours has the opposite effect: they make the individual feel even more distressed and anxious.

Examples of compulsive behaviours include the following:

  • Washing your hands repeatedly until your skin becomes raw
  • Lining up or arranging objects with extreme precision
  • Repeatedly checking that doors are locked, and that the lights and taps are turned off
  • Counting in certain patterns, or silently repeating a word or phrase


Am I at risk?

It is believed that OCD is caused by a combination of biology, genetics and the environment. Factors that may indicate a higher risk include the following:

  • Family history: you can be at risk of OCD if other family members are affected, though it is not yet understood whether this is a reflection of genetics or the environment
  • Stress: responses to trauma can include a triggering of OCD symptoms
  • Mental illness: OCD frequently coexists with other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and addiction

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