As the name indicates, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involves a combination of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Generally, the obsessive thoughts are focused on a specific fear â€” a fear of germs, for example. The compulsive behavior is a means of coping with these thoughts. As the thoughts persist, the compulsive behavior becomes ritualistic and repetitive, a hallmark of OCD.
The obsessive thoughts associated with OCD consist of unwelcome images or ideas that don’t go away. They may interfere with a person’s ability to focus on a task or keep them awake at night. The most common obsessions for OCD sufferers are:
- A need for items to be in order and arranged perfectly
- Thoughts or images of doing harm to another person
- Thoughts or images of a sexual nature
- Unreasonable anxiety about germs.
The compulsive behaviors associated with OCD depend largely on the type of thoughts the patient is experiencing. A person concerned with germs or dirt may engage in repeated hand washing that leaves the skin dry and unhealthy. Those who obsess about order may spend hours arranging and rearranging all their household items to be perfectly ordered and aligned.
Testing for OCD consists of a psychological evaluation to determine whether symptoms are consistent with OCD and a physical examination to rule out any physical ailment that may be contributing to the patient’s symptoms.
To receive a diagnosis of OCD, the obsessive thoughts must be persistent and unwanted, and the compulsive behavior must be ritualistic and aimed at easing anxieties about the obsessive thoughts.
Treatment for OCD
The primary treatment plans for OCD are prescription medications, usually antidepressants, and a type of psychotherapy called “exposure-based therapy.” Many people respond best to a combination of drugs and therapy.
Researchers believe that antidepressants help OCD by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Levels of this chemical are often lower than normal in people with OCD.
Exposure-based therapy, also called “exposure and response prevention,” is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. It involves exposing the patient to the thing they fear in their obsessive thoughts. For example, someone who fears contamination might be exposed to increasing levels of dirt, or someone who insists on order could be exposed to a set of items out of sequence. The patient is then taught to deal with the onset of anxiety that the exposure produces.
For many people with OCD, treatment does not fully alleviate the obsessive thoughts but it can help sufferers keep those thoughts in check and limit their compulsive behaviors so they do not interfere with daily life.
Mayo Clinic. (2008). Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Retrieved July 11, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/DS00189.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2010). Obsessive-compulsive disorder: OCD. Retrieved July 11, 2010, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml.
University of Maryland Medical Center. (n.d.). Anxiety disorders: Causes. Retrieved July 11, 2010, from http://www.umm.edu/mentalhealth/ancauses.htm.