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Home arrow Health arrow Mental Health arrow Recognizing OCD: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Methods

Recognizing OCD: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Methods

Maham Yousuf
Written by Maham Yousuf
Dr. Donika Vata
Fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
Last update: November 24, 2023
9 min read 764 Views 0 Comments
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Does it mean you have OCD if you want things to be in a certain order, or do you have a habit of double-checking?


Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that affects people of all ages and from all areas of life. It occurs when a person gets caught in a web of obsessions and compulsions. 

The majority of people experience obsessive thoughts or compulsive behavior at some point in their lives. But does this mean that we all have some form of OCD? And what exactly are obsessions and compulsions? Let’s find out all about OCD.

What Is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by an array of obsessions (unwanted thoughts and fears) that lead to compulsions (repetitive actions). It is a chronic, long-lasting condition, but symptom severity can vary over time.

People dealing with OCD carry out actions repetitively to help soothe their compulsive thoughts and urges. An attempt to suppress or dismiss these intrusive thoughts creates anxiety and distress. In the end, you get compelled to engage in obsessive behaviors to reduce stress.

Plenty of people experience these thoughts at some point in their lives, and you may hear them using words like “OCD” and “obsessed” casually. Examples of such thoughts could be double-checking if you have locked the door or wanting your things to be sorted in a particular way. However, OCD is more extreme, classified as neurodivergent, and goes beyond a person’s preference for order.

OCD gets in the way of a person’s everyday life, disrupting up to several hours a day.

What Is the Difference Between OCPD and OCD?  

You may think that obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) sound similar. However, these are two different conditions. 

OCPD is a personality disorder that is ruled by extreme fascination and compulsion with perfection, control, and organization. People with OCPD are not self-aware, unlike those with OCD, and may cause harm to the people around them. Their interpersonal relationships are more prone to issues, and they usually face more problems at work.  

Meanwhile, OCD is an anxiety disorder. People with OCD are usually aware that their obsessions are not based on reality but still act them out to relieve their stress. They can recognize their thoughts and compulsions as illogical or highly unlikely and do not enjoy exhibiting compulsive behavior. 

Nevertheless, a range of treatments is available for people suffering from both conditions.

What Are the Symptoms of OCD?  

As the name suggests, there are two main types of OCD symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. People with this disorder usually experience both symptoms, but it’s also possible to have only one type. 

You may realize that your obsessions and compulsions are excessive, but they still consume a lot of your time. They prevent you from going about your daily activities and from functioning in social, academic, or professional settings.


OCD obsessions are intrusive, recurrent, unwelcome thoughts that are distressing and cause anxiousness. They usually interfere with your ability to think clearly or complete other tasks. 

Obsessions are often centered around certain themes. These could be: 

  • Fear of germs, contamination, and sickness. For example, fear of getting ill after handling stuff other people have touched. 
  • Having doubts and finding it difficult to accept ambiguity. 
  • Requiring symmetry and order in things. This could lead to immense stress if items are not facing a certain way or according to your order. 
  • Having horrifying or violent thoughts about harming yourself or others. An example would be hit-and-run OCD: having mental images of driving your car into a crowd of people. 
  • Unwanted ideas and thoughts regarding sexual orientation and desires, as well as religious issues. 
  • Worrying about the health and safety of yourself or your family and friends. 

Obsessive thoughts may lead to avoidance of the circumstances that set them off, like shaking hands.  


Compulsions are repetitive behaviors you feel compelled to carry out. These repetitive actions intend to relieve the stress brought on by the obsessions or to avert negative outcomes. However, the relief obtained from acting out compulsions is only short-lived and brings no joy. 

Compulsions can be extreme and often lack a realistic connection to the issue they are meant to solve. Like obsessions, compulsions also typically have themes. These could be: 

  • Washing and cleaning your hands, body, or objects till they become raw 
  • Double-checking everything, such as repeatedly ensuring that the doors are locked or that the stove is off 
  • Counting in a certain pattern or repeating sentences, such as touching things a set number of times 
  • Following a strict routine 
  • Seeking reassurance  

What Causes OCD?  

The causes of OCD are not fully understood yet. The risk factors that may precipitate or exacerbate this condition may include: 

  • Family history: Having a first-degree relative (biological parent or sibling) with this disorder can increase your risk of developing OCD. It may be influenced by genetics, but specific genes have yet to be identified. 
  • Stress or trauma: Stressful life events can somehow set off intrusive thoughts, rituals, and emotional anguish that is characteristic of OCD.  
  • Other mental health disorders: OCD may be related to other neuropsychiatric disorders, like body dysmorphic disorder, depression, tic disorder, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders. 
  • PANDAS syndrome: The term PANDAS stands for “Pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections.” It covers a range of conditions that can affect kids who have had strep infections like streptococcal throat or scarlet fever. One of these disorders is OCD.
  • Childhood trauma: The likelihood of acquiring OCD is higher in children who have experienced abuse or extreme neglect in their childhood. 

How Is OCD Diagnosed?  

There is no physical exam, blood test, or imaging workup that can diagnose OCD. Your doctor will take a detailed history of your symptoms and mental health to give you a score to make a diagnosis. 

The criteria for OCD include:  

  • Obsessions and compulsions that take up more than 1 hour a day 
  • Distress
  • Interference in daily life, social activities, or work responsibilities 
  • The symptoms are not caused by substance abuse 
  • The symptoms are not explained by other mental disorders like body dysmorphic disorder

How to recognize OCD in children 

Obsessive compulsive disorder usually begins in late childhood or early adolescence. It is a common mental health condition affecting 2–3% of Americans. If you think that your child is exhibiting OCD symptoms, you should get them assessed by a child psychiatrist or a mental health expert. 

Adults typically have some awareness that their repetitive behaviors are abnormal. Children frequently fail to recognize that their actions are odd and unreasonable. You should seek help if your child is suffering from obsessive compulsive symptoms that interfere with their day-to-day living. 

How Is OCD Treated?  

A healthcare provider will advise you on different ways that you can seek help for obsessive compulsive disorder. They usually include psychotherapy and medication.  

#1 Medication 

A few classes of psychotropic medications can help in treating OCD. These include serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). 

The most commonly prescribed first-line drugs to treat OCD are SSRIs, used at higher doses than for depression and anxiety. FDA-approved SSRIs include fluoxetine, sertraline, and paroxetine. It can take up to 8–12 weeks before you start noticing any improvements.  

#2 Psychotherapy  

Psychotherapy is also known as “talk therapy.” It includes a number of therapeutic techniques intended to assist you in recognizing and altering your unhealthy feelings, ideas, and compulsive behaviors.  

There are many forms of psychotherapy; some of those used for OCD include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is the first-line psychosocial therapy recommended for OCD. During CBT, a therapist will work with you to explore and comprehend your ideas and feelings. Over the course of sessions, it can help in changing the harmful behaviors and exchanging them with better-coping mechanisms. 
  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP): This type of therapy involves gradually exposing a person to the root cause of their obsessions and compulsions. ERP teaches participants how to control the distress brought on by obsessions without reverting to compulsive behavior. 
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): The goal of ACT is to help you detach the power of obsessions by learning to accept that they are mere thoughts.  

#3 Other treatment options  

If the above treatment does not help you or your symptoms are severe, your doctor may suggest brain stimulation techniques, OCD support groups, or anxiety management techniques.

  • Deep brain stimulation (DBS): This therapy requires surgical placement of tiny electrodes through which electrical impulses are sent to the brain areas that are related to OCD. As it is an invasive procedure, DBS is reserved for severe cases that are resistant to other forms of treatment.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS): It is a non-invasive technique that involves the delivery of magnetic impulses to the OCD-associated areas in the brain. Experts often advise this, along with medication and therapy. 
  • Anxiety management techniques: They help a person deal with their symptoms by engaging in relaxation training, slow breathing techniques, mindfulness meditation, and hyperventilation control.  
  • Support groups and education: They allow people with obsessive compulsive disorder and their families to come together and give and receive support. These meetings give participants a chance to build social networks and learn more about the disorder. 

Dealing With OCD: Self-Help Tips 

There are many self-care tips that can help you in managing your condition along with therapy. 

  • Redirect your attention by engaging in some physical activity or a video game. Delaying the impulse to engage in compulsive behavior is a good first step. 
  • Ensure your own well-being. Stress can worsen obsessive and compulsive behavior. You can try to spend at least 30 minutes each day using relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing or mindfulness meditation). 
  • Be aware of your impulses and urges. For instance, pay extra attention when locking the door the first time if you constantly check to see if the doors are locked. Reframing the temptation to recheck as “just an obsessive thought” when it returns later will be simpler. 
  • General measures of a healthy lifestyle like getting quality sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly. 
  • You may want to use a mental health app. Such apps are becoming quite common and can act as an accessible and affordable means of add-on therapy.


Is OCD common?

Yes, OCD is a common disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, around 2–3% of the US population is affected by it.

Can I prevent OCD?

There is no sure way of preventing OCD altogether. However, seeking treatment early on may stop OCD from getting worse and interfering with your daily activities. Some studies suggest that health issues during pregnancy and birth make OCD more likely, which is one of the many key reasons to support women’s health during pregnancy.

Can OCD go away?

OCD is considered to be a lifelong disorder. The symptoms are usually gradual, and their severity also changes over time.

When should I see a doctor about OCD?

There is a difference between being a perfectionist and having OCD. OCD thoughts go beyond excessive worries about the actual issues in your life or a preference for order and cleanliness. You should consult a mental health expert if compulsions and obsessions are impacting your quality of life.

A Word From an MD

If you or your child has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, you’ll probably need to visit your doctor and/or mental health specialist frequently to make sure your treatment is effective and if you need adjustments with the therapy. 

OCD is a lifelong condition. But its severity changes over time. Even the types of obsessions and compulsions you experience can vary. However, there are treatment options that can help improve your quality of life.

The sooner the OCD is diagnosed and treated, the better the outlook. Speak with your healthcare practitioner if you have any unpleasant side effects while using OCD medication.


OCD is a mental health condition, so it’s important to remember that it can cause disruptions in your life. As with many other health conditions, getting help early can minimize the impact on your quality of life. 

Healthcare providers and mental health professionals can offer treatment strategies to help you better manage your symptoms and lead a meaningful life.

Maham Yousuf
Written by Maham Yousuf
Maham Yousuf is a registered doctor and a medical residency trainee. She’s an internal medicine resident, with experience and interest in dermatology. Maham has a passion for writing blogs and articles that are interesting and well-suited to everyone looking to learn more about different health topics.
The article was fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
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Maham Yousuf
Written by Maham Yousuf
Dr. Donika Vata
Fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
Last update: November 24, 2023
9 min read 764 Views 0 Comments

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