The Truth About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

OCD is difficult to understand and manage — but gaining control is possible! Here's what you need to know about obsessive compulsive disorder.

OCD and ADHD Adult not understanding his compulsion to clean

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a tormenting mental illness that affects approximately 1 in 100, or 3 million, adults, and 1 in 200, or 500,000, children and adolescents. OCD people who have been also diagnosed with ADHD have their hands full managing both.

The ABCs of OCD

OCD is characterized by obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are intrusive and cause distress and anxiety. Worries about real-life problems are not the same as obsessions. People with OCD try to ignore the obsessions or neutralize them with some thought or action. Even though logic says that the obsession is irrational, it is hard to ignore it.

Common obsessions include contamination (fear of contracting a disease), harm (fear of being responsible for something bad happening to a loved one), perfectionism (a need to have everything symmetrical, "just right," or ideal), scrupulosity or religious obsessions (fear of offending God), and intrusive sexual or violent thoughts.

Compulsions are repetitive physical behaviors (such as hand washing or praying) or mental acts (such as saying words silently, counting, creating images) that a person feels compelled to do in order to undo or cope with the obsession. The compulsion may have nothing to do with the obsession.

Common compulsions include checking (calling a family member to make sure your thought of them being harmed did not actually harm them), washing and cleaning, mental rituals (counting, praying, reviewing every moment of the day to ensure that you did not commit an offensive act), and avoidance (refusing to go into your child's school for fear that you will be exposed to germs).

Like ADHD, OCD has a strong genetic component and tends to run in families. Although some with OCD may not have a family member with OCD, they will likely have a family member with a disorder on the OCD spectrum: anorexia nervosa, body dysmorphic disorder, social anxiety disorder, trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling), dermatillomania (skin picking disorder), panic disorder, hypochondriasis, hoarding, Tourette's disorder, or Autism spectrum Disorders. OCD has a strong biological basis. Studies have found chemical imbalances in the neurotransmitter serotonin to be associated with OCD. A large body of research has suggested that the basal ganglia and the frontal lobes of the brain don't function correctly in OCD patients, leading to rigid, obsessive thoughts and repetitive movements.

The age of onset for OCD typically falls within two age ranges: The first is between the ages of 10-12, the other is late teens into early adulthood.

OCD symptoms interfere with a person's social, academic, occupational, and overall life functioning. The exhausting battle with OCD leads to low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse problems, relationship problems, school failure, and job problems.

Next: Understanding and Treating OCD


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