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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

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What is an obsessive compulsive disorder?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition in which one has unwanted, persistent and overwhelming thoughts and urges. These thoughts often involve unrealistic concerns or fears. Many people know that their thoughts and urges are irrational and unrealistic, but they find they can not stop them. This may lead to considerable conflicts interfering with daily life. Psychological treatment such as behavioral therapy or medication may help relieving the symptoms in most people.


Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition in which one has unwanted, persistent thoughts and urges. The cause of OCD is not clear, but it is probable that a combination of a person's personality and life circumstances combine to increase the chances of someone developing this condition. Psychological stress is a risk factor, so events such as unemployment, divorce and a history of child abuse increase the risk for developing an OCD. Around 2 out of 100 people will develop OCD during their lifetime. This condition affects men and women equally, and although it is most commonly diagnosed in early adulthood, it can affect people of any age.


The symptoms of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are persistent and invasive thoughts. Some people describe these thoughts as being 'on loop'. These thoughts often cause worry or anxiety, even if the the thoughts and fears aren't realistic. Urges are a strong need to perform certain ctions, often against one's better judgment. These are often related to the obsession. Some people find that performing the action brings them a sense of relief. Some people find that, with time, they need to perform the action multiple times before they get this sense of relief. Common urges may involve washing hands repeatedly, checking to see if appliances are turned off, closing and locking doors, but there are many possibilities. These urges and actions eventually begin to interfere with normal life as they take longer and become more complicated. People with OCD often find them embarrassing, with increases their levels of anxiety.


The diagnosis is usually made by an experienced doctor or psychiatrist based on the symptoms and a psychological assessment. A person only needs to have either compulsions or obsessions to be diagnosed with OCD, though many people have both. A doctor should rule out any other possible causes of the symptoms before making the diagnosis.


Treatment includes psychotherapy and, sometimes, medication. A psychologist or psychiatrist can help to develop strategies to recognize and break the cycle of unwanted thoughts. Medication may be prescribed to help people whose thoughts and urges interfere with their ability to start psychotherapy. Support groups can be helpful in coming to terms with the diagnosis, and in learning strategies to overcome OCD.


A strong, reliable source of support may help people with OCD to recognize symptoms of a relapse and get help before symptoms become overwhelming.

Other names for obsessive compulsive disorder

  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • OCD
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