What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

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 compulsions.

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:

  • Take up at least an hour a day.
  • 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:

  • Checkings, such as locks, alarm systems, ovens, or light switches, or think 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 order, 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.
  • A 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.

OCD risk factors include:

  • A parent, sibling, or child with OCD.
  • Physical differences in certain parts of your brain.
  • Depression, anxiety, or tics.
  • Experience with trauma.
  • A history of physical or sexual abuse as a child.

Related Conditions

Other conditions sharing some features of OCD occur more frequently in family members of OCD patients. These include, for example, body dysmorphic disorder (preoccupation with imagined ugliness), hypochondriasis (preoccupation with physical illness), trichotillomania (hair-pulling), some eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, and neurologically based disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome.

  • Body Dysmorphic Disorder
  • Hoarding Disorder
  • Hair-Pulling Disorder (Trichotillomania)
  • Skin-Picking Disorder (Excoriation)

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