Last updated:

September 21, 2022

6

 min read

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Despite common misconceptions, OCD is not about being tidy. This blog discusses OCD, its symptoms, causes, types, and treatments from a scientific approach.

Reviewed by
Ekata
Written by
Ipsa Khurana
TABLE OF CONTENTS

What is OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic mental disorder. It is characterised by patterns of obsessions and compulsions that disrupt personal, interpersonal, and professional aspects of your life.

Obsessions are recurring, uncomfortable thoughts and can turn into severe irrational fears. When faced with them, you are left with two choices - (a) suppressing the anxiety-inducing thoughts or (b) relieving them through repetitive, compulsive behaviours. 

Let us now take a detailed look at the symptoms of OCD.

What are the symptoms of OCD?

People suffering from OCD generally show symptoms of both obsessions and compulsions. However, each of these groups of symptoms can exist individually too.

Obsessions 

Obsessions are a series of unwanted and intrusive thoughts, urges, or images you cannot stop, in spite of trying your best. These thoughts may or may not lead to compulsive behaviours; either way, suppressing these can cause significant anxiety and distress. Often, obsessive thoughts are not rooted in reality and do not have a traceable cause.

Despite varying from person to person, these thoughts display certain common themes:

  • Violent thoughts revolving around self-harm or harming others
  • Unwanted and/or inappropirate (often taboo) sexual thoughts
  • Requiring order and symmetry in everyday tasks and environments
  • Difficulty dealing with uncertainty or deviations from routines
  • Excessive worries about the health and safety of yourself or your loved ones
  • Religious obsessions, concerns with blasphemy, offending god, or going to hell 
  • Fear of contamination, dirt, germs, etc.

Compulsions

Compulsions are behaviours carried out to neutralise the anxiety caused by obsessions. These can also include avoiding situations that trigger particular obsessions. Compulsive behaviour is usually time-consuming, preoccupying, and interferes with your schedule.

These can, over time, turn into routine behaviours that you must practice to avoid anxiety. These behaviours are called ‘rituals’, examples of which include religious practices or bedtime routines that a person has to practise repeatedly.

Compulsions can look like:

  • Washing, cleaning, and tidying excessively
  • Adherence to a strict, inflexible routine 
  • Checking the door, switches, etc. repeatedly 
  • Obsessive perfectionism, leading you to write, count, or redo things constantly

What are some causes behind OCD? 

The causes of OCD, like most other mental disorders, cannot be attributed to a single factor. Listed below is a range of factors that can contribute to OCD.

  • Genetics: Though it is not always the case, OCD symptoms can be genetically forwarded. Genetic predisposition can pair up with other factors, making some people more prone to OCD. 
  • Biology: Mental disorders depend on the chemical make-up and functioning of the brain. The nervous system - especially various neurotransmitters - can often contribute to OCD. 
  • Lived experience: OCD can be acquired through, or is worsened by, learned or conditioned behaviours. Past trauma can also have a role to play. 

What are the different types of OCD?

Based on its symptoms, OCD can be classified into four types. 

  1. Checking: This can be broadly defined as an extreme fear of carelessness, including behaviours like repeatedly checking switches, knobs, wallets, etc.  
  2. Contamination: These symptoms make people uncomfortable in untidy environments, causing them to feel as if they can contract a disease through contact. 
  3. Symmetry and Order: This form of OCD is primarily organisational. It involves the obsession with things being in precisely the 'right' or designated place. Items being out of place can result in debilitating anxiety.
  4. Ruminations or Intrusive Thoughts: Ruminations include obsessing over ideas that might not be particularly repulsive or disturbing. These ideas can be philosophical, religious, ethical, or abstract. Inability to reach a proper resolution regarding questions surrounding these ideas can make people ignore their responsibilities and leave them feeling dissatisfied and empty. 

Can OCD be treated?

While OCD can be difficult to live with, professional help can make it manageable. The most common OCD treatment options include:

  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help treat OCD symptoms. Your therapist will use CBT-based relaxation techniques and cognitive restructuring to help you control obsessive thoughts and compulsions.
  • Medication: Besides therapy, you might be prescribed psychiatric drugs, including anti-anxiety and/or antidepressant pills. If the symptoms are too severe, your psychiatrist can also prescribe you antipsychotics. 

You can learn more about psychiatric meds here.

  • Neuromodulation: In rare cases, nerve stimulation techniques are used if medication and therapy do not produce satisfactory results. One such technique is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is an FDA-approved complicated procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells for OCD treatment.