Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common anxiety-related mental health condition that involves a pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) making you do repetitive behaviours (compulsions). While some people develop the condition early in their life, often around puberty, it typically develops during early adulthood.
OCD symptoms can be very distressing and significantly interfere with your quality of life, as well that of your loved ones. If you try to ignore or stop your obsessions, that only increases your distress and anxiety. You may then feel driven to perform compulsive acts to try to ease your stress. Yet despite efforts to ignore or get rid of distressing thoughts or urges, they can keep coming back. This leads to more repetitive, ritualistic behaviour — the characteristic vicious cycle of OCD.
OCD often revolves around certain themes — for example, an excessive fear of being contaminated by germs. To calm these fears, you may compulsively wash your hands until they're sore and chapped.
There are two main types of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions are persistent and uncontrollable thoughts, images, urges, worries, fears or doubts that repeatedly appear in your mind. They can make you feel very anxious.
Obsessions tend to have themes to them, for example:
Examples of obsession signs and symptoms include:
Compulsions are repetitive physical behaviours or thought rituals that are performed over and over again in an attempt to relieve the anxiety caused by obsessional thoughts. These compulsions are excessive and often are not realistically related to the problem they're intended to fix.
As with obsessions, compulsions typically have themes, such as:
Examples of compulsion signs and symptoms include:
This way of interpreting thoughts produces the anxiety that sufferers of OCD feel, and the anxiety generates behaviours that are an attempt to cope: repetitive or compulsive acts you feel driven to perform to control your anxiety.
The cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder isn't fully understood. None of the different theories about why OCD develops can fully explain every person’s experience, but researchers suggest that the following could contribute to the onset of OCD:
Essentially, the relationship you have with your thoughts. Those with OCD often believe that they have more responsibility for an external life situation than they actually do. Because of this, their response to their thoughts may be out of proportion, triggering an OCD cycle
Some theories suggest your personal experience might increase the likelihood of developing OCD symptoms. This could be a traumatic childhood experience, a stressful life event or even a behaviour learned from close family members who may have exhibited OCD behaviour patterns
Some researchers believe that low levels of the chemical serotonin in the brain might be related to developing OCD, but it’s unclear whether it’s a cause or an effect of the symptoms. OCD may also have a genetic component, but specific genes have yet to be identified
If you have OCD, it’s likely that you’re able to use logic to challenge the obsessive thoughts you’re having. However, you’ll still feel compelled to do whatever it is that decreases the anxiety caused by those thoughts. OCD symptoms can be confusing as they fluctuate in intensity and can change altogether.
Many people suffer from OCD in silence for years as they’re not aware of the condition and are too embarrassed to seek help.
Getting the help you need is key if you think you’re suffering with OCD. The most important thing to remember is that, while OCD can be a severe psychological issue, it responds to psychological treatment, so it is possible to live a life free of OCD.
It can be difficult to know how best to help a friend or family member who is experiencing episodes of OCD. Here are some things to consider:
OCD can have a big impact on the person’s family and friends, who may find some aspects of the condition frustrating or exhausting.
Family, friends and carers are often unaware of how best to help a loved one suffering with OCD. Symptoms can be hard to understand and can interfere with the daily functioning of a family.
If you have a loved one suffering from symptoms of OCD, find out as much as you can about OCD and the different ways it can manifest itself, so you can support them as best you can.
While it’s probably best not to assist your loved one with any compulsive behaviours or rituals – something often labelled ‘accommodation’ – it’s important to be patient with them to ensure they don’t feel judged, and to reassure them you’re there to love and support them.