Anxious worry, hoarding tendencies, perfectionism, need for strict routine — OCD and ADHD share many traits in common. Learn about the critical differences — and hallmarks of obsessive compulsive disorder — here.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a neurological and behavioral condition. Symptoms of OCD include recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). OCD and ADHD symptoms overlap: as many as 50 to 80 percent of people with ADHD also have related, comorbid conditions (such as OCD).
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OCD: Common Obsessions
Obsessive compulsive disorder obsessions can take the form of repetitive words, thoughts, fears, worries, memories, or pictures. Some common obsessions include fear of dirt, germs, or becoming ill/dying; fear of losing control and causing harm to oneself or others; perverse or forbidden sexual thoughts; and the extreme need for order, symmetry, or “perfection.” An individual with OCD may view her obsessions as being extreme or unnecessary, yet still feel like she cannot control or stop them.
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OCD: Common Compulsions
People with OCD often take part in compulsive rituals in an attempt to calm their obsessive thoughts. Common compulsions include excessively cleaning, bathing, or washing hands; refusing to shake hands or touch door knobs; repeatedly touching, counting, or rearranging objects; excessively checking alarms, locked doors, or unplugged fixtures; hoarding; and perfectionism. Although doing these rituals provides only temporary relief, not doing them can dramatically increase anxiety.
OCD is not the occasional worry about getting sick or the desire to keep things clean. And orderly does not indicate an obsession — everyone has these thoughts from time to time. Additionally, not all repetitive behaviors, rituals, or routines point to compulsions — in fact, a daily routine can be quite beneficial for those with ADHD. It’s only OCD when repetitive thoughts or behaviors interfere with day-to-day life.
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Who Is Affected by OCD?
It is estimated that OCD affects more than 2 million people in the United States. Although OCD can be found in individuals of any age, according to the International OCD Foundation, OCD most commonly presents itself in individuals between ages 8-12 years old and between late teens and early adulthood.
While the exact causes of OCD are largely unknown, it is believed that obsessive-compulsive behavior results from a deficiency of a neurotransmitter, serotonin, in specific areas of the brain. New research suggests that the more severe forms of the condition, in which obsessive thoughts “lock” and cannot be relieved, involve more than a neurotransmitter shortfall. There may also be a genetic component to OCD.
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OCD's Diagnostic Difficulties
OCD is easily confused with ADHD due to overlapping behavioral symptoms. For example, a child who has trouble completing schoolwork may seem inattentive; however, the problem may actually stem from a fear of making a mistake that is so intense that he is unable to move on to the next task. Determining the root of behavior problems is the key to a proper diagnosis.
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OCD Treatment Options
If you believe that you or your child may have ADHD and OCD, it is recommended that you see a professional who specializes in treating patients with more than one disorder. OCD is typically treated with a combination of therapy and a non-stimulant medication, such as an SSRI, which increases serotonin levels in the brain.
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OCD and Stimulant Medication
For reasons that are not known, stimulant medications, often used to treat ADHD, may exacerbate an existing case of OCD. Often, the first clue that someone has ADHD and OCD — or may have OCD rather than ADHD — is a significant increase in OCD behaviors after taking a stimulant medication. Once symptoms of OCD are under control, a stimulant can often be reintroduced without causing a flare-up of the OCD behaviors.