The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a disorder in which individuals have obsessive thoughts, ideas, and sensations that are recurring and unwanted. These thoughts, ideas, and sensations make the individual feel driven to perform certain behaviours repeatedly – or compulsions.
Such compulsions, like washing hands repeatedly, cleaning things, or checking on things can significantly interfere in the lives of the individual.
The usual onset of OCD is before 25 years of age, most commonly during childhood and adolescence. Although it can begin at any time, research has shown there are two age spans more susceptible to the onset of OCD – 10 years to 12 years, and late adolescence to early adulthood.
Research has also shown that the onset appears to be earlier in men than in women.
Individuals with OCD usually may have symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both. The symptoms are such that they interfere in the daily life of the individual and affect every aspect – work, school, and personal relationships.
Obsessions are thoughts, impulses, or images that are recurrent and persistent that often cause distressing emotions like anxiety and disgust.
Many individuals with OCD realise that these thoughts and images are unreasonable and excessive, but are unable to resolve these impulses through logic and reasoning. Common symptoms include:
- Fear of germs or contamination
- Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion, or harm
- Aggressive thoughts towards others or self
- Having things symmetrical or in a perfect order
It is common for individuals with such obsessions to participate in compulsive behaviour, distract themselves, or ignore them altogether to reduce their anxiety.
The second part to OCD is compulsions, or repetitive behaviours and mental acts that an individual with OCD feels forced to perform in response to obsessions. These compulsive behaviours often help in reducing the distress produced by an obsessive thought, impulse, or image.
These behaviours are often excessive and may be directly related to obsessive thought (such as excessive hand washing due to the fear of contamination) or may not be related to the thought at all.
Typical Compulsions include:
- Excessive or ritualized hand washing, showering, brushing teeth, or toileting
- Repeated cleaning of household objects
- Ordering or arranging things in a particular way
- Repeatedly checking locks, switches, or appliances
- Constantly seeking approval or reassurance
- Repeated counting to a certain number
Individuals with OCD have persistent and recurring thoughts, impulses, and images that often lead to distressing emotions like anxiety, disgust, and fear (For example, fear of contamination or dirt, doubting and having difficulty tolerating uncertainty, Needing things orderly and symmetrical).
Such thoughts and impulses drive these individuals to perform compulsive behaviours that help reduce the stress caused by obsessive thoughts and offer a temporary relief (For example, washing and cleaning, checking, counting, orderliness).
OCD is most common in older teens and younger adults, below the age of 25. It can, however, begin as early as preschool age and as late as age 40. Studies have also shown that men are more prone to developing this disorder than women.
OCD is, in fact, a type of anxiety disorder, and one of the five disorders as classified in the DSM-5. The other anxiety disorders include Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder).
OCD and ADHD share some common symptoms with each other and can also occur together in the same individual. Recent studies have also shown that both OCD and ADHD have a high heritability, and both these disorders affect the same area of the brain. However, no direct link between ADHD and OCD has been established yet.
While there is no cure for OCD, there are methods that help individuals in controlling the symptoms of OCD. Depending on the severity of these symptoms, it could take anywhere from two months to a year to properly help individuals with OCD.
Just like any other illness and mental disorder, OCD does not go away on its own if ignored. The sooner you seek help, the better your chances of remission are.
Not much is known about the exact cause of OCD, but many studies have shown that genetics and brain differences in those affected play a role.