Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that causes repeated unwanted thoughts or sensations (obsessions) or the urge to do something over and over again (compulsions). Some people can have both obsessions and compulsion.
OCD isn’t about habits like biting your nails or thinking negative thoughts. An obsessive thought might be that certain numbers or colors are “good” or “bad.” A compulsive habit might be to wash your hands seven times after touching something that could be dirty. Although you may not want to think or do these things, you feel powerless to stop.
Everyone has habits or thoughts that repeat sometimes. People with OCD have thoughts or actions that:
- Are beyond your control
- Aren’t enjoyable
- Interfere with work, your social life, or another part of life
OCD Types and Symptoms
OCD comes in many forms, but most cases fall into at least one of four general categories:
Checking – such as locks, alarm systems, ovens, or light switches, or thinking you have a medical condition like pregnancy or schizophrenia
Contamination – a fear of things that might be dirty or a compulsion to clean. Mental contamination involves feeling like you’ve been treated like dirt.
Symmetry and ordering – the need to have things lined up in a certain way
Ruminations and intrusive thoughts – an obsession with a line of thought. Some of these thoughts might be violent or disturbing.
Obsessions and Compulsions
Many people who have OCD know that their thoughts and habits don’t make sense. They don’t do them because they enjoy them but because they can’t quit. And if they stop, they feel so bad that they start again.
Obsessive thoughts can include:
- Worries about yourself or other people getting hurt
- Constant awareness of blinking, breathing or other body sensations
- Suspicion that a partner is unfaithful with no reason to believe it
Compulsive habits can include:
- Doing tasks in a specific order every time or a certain “good” number of times
- Needing to count things, like steps or bottles
- Fear of touching doorknobs, using public toilets or shaking hands\
OCD Causes and Risk Factors
Doctors aren’t sure why some people have OCD. Stress can make symptoms worse. It’s a bit more common in women than in men. Symptoms often appear in teens or young adults.
Your doctor may do a physical exam and blood tests to make sure something else isn’t causing your symptoms. They will also talk with you about your feelings, thoughts, and habits.
There’s no cure for OCD. But you may be able to manage how your symptoms affect your life.
- Psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help change your thinking patterns. In a form called exposure and response prevention, your doctor will put you in a situation designed to create anxiety or set off compulsions. You’ll learn to lessen and then stop your OCD thoughts or actions.
- Relaxation. Simple things like meditation, yoga, and massage can help with stressful OCD symptoms.
- Medication. Psychiatric drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors help many people control obsessions and compulsions. They might take 2 to 4 months to start working.
- Neuromodulation. In rare cases, when therapy and medication aren’t making enough of a difference, your doctor might talk to you about devices that change the electrical activity in a certain area of your brain. A more complicated procedure, deep brain stimulation, uses electrodes that are implanted in your head.