What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?


Dr. Megan McGinn

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that you may have heard of in the media, or even used yourself as an expression—but there is much more to it than meets the eye. Below, Dr. Megan McGinn goes into detail on what OCD is, how it differs from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), and what treatment options are available.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a mental disorder characterized by recurrent, anxiety-producing, intrusive thoughts (“obsessions) as well as repetitive, impulsive behaviors (“compulsions”). The compulsions are often performed to mitigate or control the obsessions, and therefore relieve anxiety.

 Obsessions are distinguished by their irrationality and their content can vary, but often include thoughts about contamination, a need for order, and taboo thoughts about sex, religion, and harm to oneself or others.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person feels the urge to enact in response to obsessions.  Compulsions include washing, rearranging or counting objects, seeking reassurance, or checking things (i.e., to see if the door is locked or the iron is unplugged).  They may also include mental acts that are not outwardly observable, including prayers, saying special phrases, counting, or imagining “undoing” the obsessive thought.  If compulsions are unable to be performed, the person may become distressed or fearful that something terrible may happen.

Compulsions temporarily relieve the anxiety or tension associated with the obsession, but they are often time-consuming.  In fact, to be diagnosed with OCD one must experience obsessions and compulsions for at least one hour a day.  This can be very disruptive and negatively affect one’s ability to function professionally and maintain personal relationships.

OCD typically develops in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. Certain character traits are correlated with the development of OCD such as fearfulness, perfectionism, a heightened sense of responsibility and intolerance of uncertainty. People with OCD may have a low degree of insight about their symptoms, and may actually believe that their obsessive thoughts have undue powers of influence unless the compulsive rituals are performed.  In addition, people with OCD have more difficulty identifying and processing their feelings in a healthy way.

OCD vs Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder:

OCD and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) are commonly used interchangeably but they are actually two distinct disorders.  OCPD is not defined by obsessions or compulsions, but rather by persistent and inflexible patterns of perfectionism, orderliness, and control that negatively impact the person’s ability to function in professional and personal domains.  People diagnosed with OCPD may exhibit the following symptoms over long periods of time: the relentless need for control over self, others, and the environment, excessive rule-following, restricted range of emotions, perfectionism over the smallest details, extreme dedication to work, and an inability to empathize with others or form close relationships.

OCD Treatment:

The most well-researched treatment for OCD is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention.  In this type of treatment, the patient is exposed to images, sounds, environments, or other triggers that elicit obsessive thoughts.  When the patient experiences obsessions, they are restricted from performing compulsions.  At first, this will heighten the patient’s anxiety, but over time the patient will see that it is not necessary to perform compulsions, and the mental association between obsessions and compulsions will be weakened.

We hope that you were able to learn a little more about this disorder. If you’re reading this and feel as though you are experiencing symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, know that with the help of a professional, you can learn to manage these symptoms. Book an appointment today and take your first steps towards a better future.

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