What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Double-checking that you've locked the door when you go out or that you've turned off the cooker are behaviours common to many people. But if you are suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) then you'll probably feel the need to check more than once or twice; you'll be compelled to check repeatedly.

With OCD you'll frequently have disturbing thoughts that won't go away and you'll find yourself repeating the same action over and over to try to make them disappear. You won't be able to control yourself - but the good thing is that OCD can be treated.

The basics of OCD

OCD is an anxiety disorder that, if untreated, can eventually lead to depression. It comprises two aspects that, in the vast majority of cases, occur together:

  • Obsessions – recurrent, upsetting thoughts that are uncontrollable despite the sufferer's recognition that they are irrational, leading to anxiety and distress. These could relate to personal hygiene or appearance, or security.
  • Compulsions – rituals or actions that must be performed repetitively, often based on the obsession or rigid rules, and that provide temporary relief for the anxiety. For example, an obsession with cleanliness could lead to compulsive, frequent washing of hands or an obsession with security might mean checking locks and doors over and over again.

OCD is quite common, affecting 1.2% of the UK population. It can start in childhood but is normally only positively identified in people aged between 20 and 30.

People with OCD are at greater risk of developing any of a number of other problems. These include:

  • Tourette's disorder – vocal or muscle twitches.
  • Chronic pulling of their hair
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Mood disorders like depression and panic attacks.
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa

What causes OCD?

OCD cannot be attributed to any single cause. It is usually a combination of factors including genetics, brain function and environment. You are most at risk of getting OCD if:

  • There is a history of OCD in your family
  • You are anxious or depressed
  • You have a phobia
  • You have abused alcohol or cocaine
  • You are from a higher-income family

What to look for

People suffering from OCD often exhibit excessive concerns, irrational fears or fixations. They might:

  • Be worried about dirt, illness or the risk of accidents.
  • Have a preoccupation with religion or the meaning of life.
  • Be consumed by self-doubt.
  • Have a fixation with numbers or a need for symmetry.
  • Think about sex to an excessive degree.

These and other obsessive thoughts are manifested in a number of ways, including:

  • Washing hands so frequently that they become sore.
  • Excessive repeated prayer or chanting.
  • Continual checking and rechecking even though a task has already been completed satisfactorily.
  • A need to have everything precisely in its place.
  • Hoarding, even of rubbish.

In children OCD can be difficult to spot but there are warning signs. Children who are hypersensitive, possibly intolerant of certain foods or clothes, or have rigid patterns of behaviour could be exhibiting early symptoms.

Getting treatment for OCD

Left untreated, the symptoms of OCD are unlikely to improve and may, in fact, get worse. However, with the right treatment there is an excellent chance of a complete cure or, at the very least, an improvement that will lead to a better quality of life.

In the first instance, you should normally contact your GP who will decide if you need to see a specialist by asking a number of screening questions. Once diagnosed, treatment usually involves cognitive behavioural therapy, a counselling-style therapy designed to help you change the way you think and act, and possibly medication with antidepressants to control your symptoms. The treatment you require will depend on the severity of your condition.


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