People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have persistent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and use rituals (compulsions) to control the anxiety these thoughts produce. People with OCD can’t control these thoughts and rituals and most of the time, the rituals end up controlling them.
Everyone double-checks things sometimes-for example, checking the stove before leaving the house, to make sure it’s turned off. But people with OCD feel the need to check things over and over, or have certain thoughts or perform routines and rituals over and over. The thoughts and rituals of OCD cause distress and get in the way of daily life.
For example, if people are obsessed with germs or dirt, they may develop a compulsion to wash their hands over and over again. If they develop an obsession with intruders, they may lock and relock their doors many times before going to bed. Being afraid of social embarrassment may prompt people with OCD to comb their hair compulsively in front of a mirror-sometimes they get “caught” in the mirror and can’t move away from it. Performing such rituals is not pleasurable. At best, it produces temporary relief from the anxiety created by obsessive thoughts.
Other common rituals or compulsions are a need to repeatedly check things, touch things (especially in a particular sequence), clean things, or count things when these actions are not needed. Some common obsessions include having frequent thoughts of violence and harming loved ones, persistently thinking about performing sexual acts the person dislikes, or having thoughts that are prohibited by religious beliefs. People with OCD may also be preoccupied with order and symmetry, have difficulty throwing things out (so they accumulate), or hoard unneeded items.
People with OCD have these thoughts and do these rituals for at least an hour on most days, often longer. The reason OCD gets in the way of their lives is that they can’t stop the thoughts or rituals, so they sometimes miss school, work, or meetings with friends, for example.
Healthy people also have rituals but the difference is that people with OCD perform their rituals even though doing so interferes with daily life and they find the repetition distressing. Although most adults with OCD recognize that what they are doing is senseless, some adults and most children may not realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary.
OCD affects about 2.2 million Australian adults,1 and the problem can be accompanied by eating disorders,6 other anxiety disorders, or depression.2,4 It strikes men and women in roughly equal numbers and usually appears in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.2 One-third of adults with OCD develop symptoms as children, and research indicates that OCD might run in families although no one knows for sure why some people have it, while others don’t.3
The course of the disease is quite varied. Symptoms may come and go, ease over time, or get worse. If OCD becomes severe, it can keep a person from working or carrying out normal responsibilities at home. People with OCD may try to help themselves by avoiding situations that trigger their obsessions, or they may use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves.4,5