What is OCD

What is OCD?

What is OCD?

Table of Contents

Common OCD Triggers

Defining OCD

What is OCD? Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of mental health disorder that can affect any person at any age. With OCD symptoms, the individual becomes caught in a disruptive cycle with obsessions and compulsions.

Throughout their lives, many individuals will experience some form of obsessive thought or compulsive behavior. However, it does not mean that everyone will experience the detrimental effects of OCD. The difference between typical obsessive thoughts and behaviors and OCD is that with OCD, the cycle of obsessions and compulsions becomes so disruptive and extreme that it consumes an individual’s life and gets in the way of personal and life activities. However, there are treatments and medications available.1

How Common is OCD?

OCD can occur at any age, but there are two age ranges in which OCD symptoms will appear. These age ranges are either between the ages of eight and twelve or between the late teen years and early adulthood. The International OCD Foundation estimates that about 1 in 100 adults currently live with OCD. That means that about 2 to 3 million adults in the United States live with OCD.2

How Is OCD Diagnosed?

Only a trained mental health professional can diagnose an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Typically, professionals will use diagnostic criteria from either the ICD-10 or the DSM-5. With both sets of criteria, there must be the presence of obsessional thoughts and compulsive behavior that impedes the individual’s ability to function in daily life.


Additionally, both will cause the individual elevated levels of anxiety and must not be related to any other disorder, such as substance abuse, schizophrenia, or a major depressive episode.2

Right triggers will be different for everyone, and some common triggers may influence the onset of OCD symptoms. Some of these triggers may include:


  • Increased stress
  • Out of place object
  • Death of a close family member or friend
  • Traumatic life events
  • Depressive episode
  • Changes in the environment
  • Chemical imbalance
  • Increased anxiety4

Defining Obsessions and Compulsions

Compulsion vs. Obsession

Obsessions and compulsions are distinctly different behaviors. When comparing compulsion vs. obsessions, it is critical to distinguish the two. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that the individual with OCD will use to counteract, neutralize, or otherwise resolve their obsessions. Compulsions are typically a temporary relief or escape from obsessive behaviors. With OCD, compulsions are time-consuming behaviors that can get in the way of daily activities.


Alternatively, obsessions are the thoughts, impulses, or images that continuously plague the mind and can make the individual feel as though they are out of control. Obsessions are often intense and even disturbing. They are also accompanied by fear, disgust, doubt, or the feeling that everything needs to be done in a specific way. Furthermore, these obsessions can cause extreme anxiety that can impede normal functioning.

Addiction vs. Compulsion

When considering addiction vs. Compulsions, the two are separate entities. While addiction is a broad term that is used to describe the dependence that an individual has on a particular substance or behavior, a compulsion describes the intense urge to perform a certain behavior. Compulsions may play a role in the addiction process by making the individual feel as though they must take an addictive substance to carry out an addictive behavior.5

Addiction vs. Obsession

Addiction and obsessions, on the other hand, have a strong connection. While an obsession is a ritualistic routine, addiction is slightly different and refers to how an individual uses a substance or addictive behavior as a form of mental escape.6

Types of OCD

Because OCD symptoms can cover a wide variety of topics, there are generally some types of OCD that obsessions and compulsions can fall under.


Contamination generally refers to the fear of being dirty. In this case, contamination is an obsession-based worry where the individual may fear that the contamination could cause harm to themselves or someone they love. For example, contamination may include chemicals, shaking hands, door handles, medical facilities, money, bathrooms, or others. Additionally, mental contamination also falls under this category.

Causing Harm

Under the causing harm type of obsession, the individual may fear that they are responsible for terrible things happening or that they may be harmful to others because they are not careful with their actions.


Symmetry refers to the individual’s need to have their belongings lined up in a certain way or for things to be in certain locations.


Scrupulosity refers to religious obsessions that may include excessive concern over right and wrong, worry over offending spiritual deities, or blasphemy.


The sexual type of obsession can exist in different realms. For example, the individual may have perverse sexual thoughts or images continuously pop into their head, have sexual obsessions involving children or incest, have obsessions with aggressive sexual behavior, or others.


Compulsive hoarding may refer to a collector who keeps many items that may have little value or use. These items typically clutter that individual’s space and can cause the individual stress even though they refused to remove or get rid of the items.


Doubt can play a role in many different instances. For example, the individual may have concerns over decisions that they made, constantly need reassurance, and practice perfectionism.


OCD symptoms may also permeate relationships. Commonly known as ROCD, this type of OCD is relationship-centered and can include obsessive preoccupations associated with the partner, feelings of affection, and overall relationship obsessions.


Existential OCD typically involves repetitive thinking about questions that may not have easy answers. Sometimes these questions can be philosophical or they can revolve around the meaning or purpose of life. While many people can let these topics go, the individual with OCD will continuously think about them.

Symptoms and Common OCD Behaviors

There are some common signs and symptoms that are associated with OCD and compulsive behaviors. Generally, these behaviors include some of the following:7

Frequent irrational fears and worries

Disturbing thoughts and uncontrollable feelings

Unusual behaviors that cannot be explained

Anxiety that results from something being out of order

Intense desire to place things in a particular order

Ritualized behavior, such as locking a door three times before leaving a home

Compulsive behaviors of any kind

Trouble focusing at school, work, or at home

Frequently checking and rechecking

Trouble making or maintaining relationships

Becoming upset or angry if the individual is kept from performing a compulsive behavior

Anger if the individual is interrupted before completing a compulsive behavior

Depressed mood and anxiety

Treatment for OCD

There are several treatments available for OCD. According to the International OCD Foundation, nearly 7 out of 10 individuals diagnosed with OCD will benefit from either medication treatment or exposure in response prevention (ERP) therapy.8


OCD symptoms can be taken to help manage obsessions and compulsive behavior. For the medication to be successful, it is critical that the client takes it regularly and as directed by their medical professional.


Anti-depressants and SRIs (Serotonin reuptake inhibitors) have been effective for treating OCD symptoms. Because depression can sometimes be a result of OCD, many doctors attempt to target both OCD and depression with the same medication.9


Psychotherapy (talk therapy) and other forms of psychological treatment have been successfully used to treat OCD. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help in the treatment of OCD. Furthermore, exposure and response prevention (ERP) can be successful.


With this type of therapy, clients diagnosed with OCD will see a licensed mental health professional and work to overcome obsessive thoughts as well as work through the compulsive behaviors. Psychotherapy is meant as a strategy to expose the individual to their anxiety and work through coping mechanisms to manage symptoms.10


Because OCD involves abnormally strong emotions and reactions in the brain, some types of neurotherapy, such as neurofeedback, can train the brain to take back control of emotional reactivity. By reducing the overactive brain waves within the brain of an individual with OCD, it may help reduce obsessions and compulsions.