What does having OCD really mean?

August 10, 2017 | by M. Joann Wright, Ph.D.

The term “OCD” and "obsessive-compulsive" has become a popular, even joked about, term. Some casually associate it with being “clean” and “organized.” But obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is much more complex.

Understanding what OCD really means can help clear up misunderstandings about the disorder and pay respect to the people who actually suffer from it.

The International OCD Foundation offers answers to some common questions about OCD:

What is OCD?

The National Institute of Mental Health says obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.

Those with OCD may spend several hours every day focusing on disturbing, obsessive thoughts and performing behaviors or rituals to ward off the thoughts.

Who gets OCD?

About 1 in 100 people suffer from OCD in the United States. About half of those cases are severe. OCD affects adults, adolescents and children of all races and backgrounds equally.

At what age does OCD begin?

OCD can start at any time from preschool to adulthood. There are generally two age ranges when OCD first appears: ages 10-12, and late teens-early adulthood. In fact, there are at least 1 in 200 kids and teens that have OCD.

What causes OCD?

Research shows that OCD runs in families, meaning people with a parent, sibling or child who has OCD are at a higher risk for developing it themselves. Some research suggests genes play a larger role when OCD starts in childhood.

People who have experienced abuse in childhood or other trauma are at an increased risk for developing OCD. Some children who are genetically predisposed to OCD may develop symptoms following a streptococcal infection.

How is OCD diagnosed?

Only trained therapists can diagnose OCD, usually by observing and assessing a person’s symptoms. They will look for uncontrolled obsessions and/or compulsions that interfere with daily life:

  • Obsessions: Unwanted intrusive thoughts, images or impulses that cause fear, anxiety, etc.
    • Fear of dirt, germs or contamination
    • Unwanted, forbidden thoughts involving sex, religion and harm
    • Aggressive thoughts towards others or self
    • Concern with having things symmetrical or in a perfect order (“just right”)
  • Compulsions: Repetitive behaviors or thoughts to “get rid of” your obsessions and ease anxiety.
    • Excessive cleaning and/or handwashing
    • Ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way
    • Repeatedly checking on things (e.g., if the door is locked or the oven is off)
    • Compulsive counting

Not all thoughts are obesssions, and not all repetitive behaviors are compulsions. It’s normal to worry occasionally about getting sick, or to double check things sometimes. But if you have OCD, these thoughts or behaviors take up a lot of time and get in the way of important activities you value, such as socializing, working and going to school.

Learn more about common obsessions and compulsions in OCD.

What are treatments for OCD?

On average, about 70 percent of people with OCD will benefit from medicine and/or a behavior therapy (BT) called exposure and response prevention (ERP).

ERP involves exposing yourself to the things that make you anxious. Once the anxiety or obsessions have been “triggered,” you make a choice not to do the compulsive behavior. You face your fears gradually (exposure) without giving in to the rituals (response prevention).

ERP is done under the guidance of a therapist at the beginning, and eventually you learn to manage your symptoms yourself. You have to continue to make the commitment to not give in and do the compulsive behavior until you notice a drop in your anxiety.

Treatment for OCD may also include talk therapy with a properly trained therapist, and family support and education. Sometimes people with OCD also have other mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, so treatment should take these into account as well.

What happens if OCD goes untreated?

Some people hide their OCD symptoms because of embarrassment, or maybe they don’t realize it’s a real illness that can be treated. In fact, studies have found it can take 14-17 years from the time OCD begins for someone to get appropriate treatment.

Untreated OCD can be detrimental to all aspects of life. People with OCD will often avoid situations that trigger their obsessions. Their relationships, work and schooling may suffer. They may use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves.

Most adults with OCD are aware that their obsessions and compulsions are irrational, yet they feel powerless to stop them. Most children may not realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary, so it takes a parent or teacher to notice the symptoms.

What is the outlook for people with OCD?

For many people with OCD, their lives are consumed with disturbing, uncontrollable thoughts and the urge to repeat behaviors or rituals over and over.

Fortunately, with proper treatment, those with OCD can take control of the illness and find relief. Children can learn that that they are in charge, not the OCD. Treatment can help adults and children alike overcome the fears and behaviors that are putting their life on hold.

If you think you or someone you love may be suffering from OCD, you aren’t alone. Get support from Linden Oaks Behavorial Health.

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