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What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

According to Laura Schuster Effland, Managing Director of Clinical Operations for Eating Recovery Center Washington, the psychiatric textbook definition of OCD requires the presentation of both uncontrollable, obsessive, recurrent thoughts (obsessions) and compulsive behaviors that must be repeated over and over again (compulsions).

Patients will often feel that the intrusive thoughts are the problem, and their compulsions are the solution. For example, if someone is experiencing intrusive thoughts about cleanliness or germs, their reaction can be to wash their hands, clothes and surroundings to an extent that it disrupts their usual way of living.

Dr. Charles Brady notes that when patients perform their compulsions, they’re trying to gain a sense of certainty and avoid or prevent the “what if” questions and feelings of uncertainty introduced by intrusive thinking. What if I drop and hurt this baby? What if I’m not as devoted to my religion as I ought to be? What if I just ran over a person while driving but I can’t tell?

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Types of OCD

It’s important to remember that OCD can look different in different people, and this list won’t cover every possible manifestation of the disorder. However, some of most commonly occuring forms are identified as:

Harm obsession

This form of OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts involving violent acts against another person, or fearing they could cause someone else harm. Compulsions often involve avoiding the risk of causing harm to others, like hiding/avoiding knives and sharp objects.

Perfection / Symmetry

Also known as “Just Right” OCD, this subset involves the need for things to be correctly aligned or symmetrical. Compulsions can include aligning, ordering, touching and tapping.

Checking Compulsions

As the name suggestions, this form of OCD presents with checking-based compulsive behavior. People with this OCD often believe that they could cause something bad to happen to themselves or others, creating anxiety. Compulsive checking is used to gain a sense of certainty that they did lock the door, turn off the oven, tuck their children in, etc.

Contamination / Cleanliness

Contamination OCD is characterized by a patient becoming concerned by illness or germs, or in some cases “clean eating.” Compulsions can include excessive washing or avoiding areas where it's more likely to come in contact with germs, like crowded public places.

Sexual OCD

Sexual obsession OCD, often under-diagnosed according to “Psychology Today,” involves unwanted thoughts of a sexual nature that those experiencing them find disturbing.


OCD Symptoms, Signs & Triggers

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disorder where obsessive thoughts and compulsions to relieve those obsessions interrupt daily functioning. This disorder requires diagnosis through screening and assessment and, oftentimes, treatment.

More About OCD Symptoms and Signs

OCD Health Risks

When a person doesn’t know they have OCD or they don’t know about methods of managing it — like forms of therapy and medication — there can be both emotional and physical complications.

People can experience difficulty developing and maintaining relationships, difficulty attending school and work, and an overall poor quality of life due to the time it takes to perform rituals. According to a 2020 peer-reviewed article, about 90% of people with OCD will also have anxiety disorders, mood disorders, impulse disorders and substance use disorders. The presence of these other disorders along with OCD significantly increases the risk of suicide, and depression can result from a person feeling like their OCD is impairing their ability to function in their lives.

Physical damage can take place from compulsions, including contact dermatitis, repetitive strain injury, physical exhaustion, or from self-soothing behaviors, including biting nails, picking skin or pulling hair. A 2014 study also revealed that there is a higher rate of migraine headaches and respiratory disease among those with OCD.

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Causes of OCD

Though scientists and doctors are continually researching OCD, it’s not entirely clear what can cause it. Currently, research suggests the following three items can be contributing factors:

  • Genetics / Hereditary Factors
  • Brain Chemistry or Abnormalities
  • Life Events or External Stresses

Exploring Specialized Treatment Options for OCD

If you or someone you know is showing signs of OCD, know there are options available for treatment. Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center starts with free, confidential consultations that can lead those with OCD down the right path for them. Every comprehensive and individualized treatment recommendation is different —and will depend on what an individual and family want to accomplish — but can include:

  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) as a foundational, first-line, evidence-based psychotherapy to treat the symptoms of OCD.
  • Expert psychiatric assessment and psychopharmacologic treatment. When combined with psychotherapy, this results in sustained relief of symptoms.
  • A multidisciplinary team that provides a comprehensive patient assessment to identify co-occurring disorders and examine how the patient’s current obsessions and compulsions become barriers in their life.
  • OCD Programming is created with a foundation of safety and supported practice (i.e., exposures) — essential components for long-term healing.
  • Culturally informed programming including admissions, therapy interventions and groups to ensure the best environment for engagement, learning and recovery.

Do I have OCD? Take our OCD Test

If left untreated, OCD may become chronic and interfere with normal routines, schoolwork, employment and family or social activities. To identify if the symptoms you are experiencing might be OCD, answer a few short questions with our OCD quiz.

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