Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a treatable mental health issue that affects approximately 3.3 million people in the United States (1% of children and 2% of adults). OCD can look very different from person to person, but in all cases people with OCD display mental health symptoms known as obsessions and compulsions. Here are some examples of many, but not all, variations in these symptoms:
When you have OCD, you develop an aversion to certain thoughts, urges, and other mental experiences. These unwanted thoughts are called your obsessions, and they cause you so much distress that you begin to search for ways to prevent them from recurring. Some examples of obsessions include:
- Thoughts that you might come into contact with dangerous or deadly germs
- Thoughts that you are “dirty” from having touched something
- Doubts about your recent memory (did I forget to lock the door, did I do all of my homework, did I take something without paying from the store I just left)
- Fears that you will lose control of yourself in some way (follow an impulse or urge to do something bad)
- Fears that you might have a serious medical issue
- Fears that you might be a bad person in some way (a racist, a pedophile, a serial killer, a criminal, a terrorist, etc.)
- Fears that you will have to throw up
- Repetitive fears that you hit someone with your car without realizing it and drove away from the scene of the crime.
- Thoughts that you might want to kill yourself
- Thoughts that you might want to hurt or kill others
- Distressing uncertainty about your sexuality (whether or not you might be gay, straight, etc.)
- Thoughts that someone in your life might die, and that you could have prevented it in some way
- Fears that you might have disappointed God in some way and might be going to hell
- An intense “need” for symmetry (if you touch something with your right hand, you need to touch it with your left)
- Intense urges to have things a particular way (this could be objects in the environment, the fit of one’s clothing, or even the behavior of other people)
- A need to get things “perfect” (homework, art projects, work assignments, and even one’s social behavior)
- Severe discomfort with uncertainty (not knowing how you are going to do on a test, not knowing which choice will result in the best outcome).
- Many obsessions can be more “bizarre” or “magical” in nature and include things like: fears that you might travel back in time, thoughts that you might change into another person, or the fear that you might suddenly switch your sex and/or gender
These are the actions you take to try and prevent your obsessions from getting stuck in your head. Compulsions are generally effective to varying degrees in the short term (they get rid of your obsession for a little while) but do not end up working in the long term (they never really get rid of the problem). Examples of compulsions include:
- Washing your hands excessively and/or in a ritualized manner
- Excessively cleaning your belongings.
- Doing things in a highly organized or scheduled manner (cycling through your clothes in a particular order, exercising a certain way and for a certain amount of time each day
- Mentally arguing with and trying to disprove your OCD worries over and over again
- Mentally reassuring yourself every time your fears are triggered
- Seeking reassurance from others again and again
- Avoiding people, places, things, or activities that trigger your OCD fears and worries
- Trying to block out or repress certain thoughts
- Repeatedly “checking” things like door locks, the stove, and other items.
- Praying excessively and/or in a highly repetetive manner
- Waiting for a specific mental state ( to feel a specific emotion or think a certain thought) before starting or ending a task.
- Completing rituals based on lucky and/or unlucky numbers, colors, or words.
- Whenever you have a “bad” thought, rephrasing it as a “good” thought in your head
- Doing things extremely slowly so you don’t make any mistakes
- Repetitively checking your appearance in the mirror
- Requiring others to speak or act in a specific way.
- Putting off decisions.
- Repeating certain tasks until they are perfect or “just right”
- Completing certain repetitive, tic-like bodily motions
- Staying in constant contact with loved ones to make sure that they are safe
- Making excessive doctor’s appointments or repetitively seeking out medical advice from others to make sure you are not experiencing a serious health issue.
- In general, depending on others…to prompt you to do things, to help you make decisions, to tell you you are safe and that you are a good person.
Treatment for OCD
Treatment for OCD has advanced greatly in recent decades and it is now considered a mental health disorder that responds very well to treatment. That being said, individuals with OCD have to be very careful with what treatment they pursue, as some are helpful whereas others can actually make symptoms worse. To learn more about the evidence-based treatment offered at the Center for OCD and Anxiety, you can read more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.