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What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

written by: Kelly Marquize • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 11/12/2010

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a potentially dangerous disorder that affects 2.2 million American adults each year. Read on to learn about this debilitating condition and its symptoms.

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    Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Defined

    In order to fully understand what is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), we will look at the respective definitions separately. (Definitions taken from Dictionary.com)

    Obsession: -n. the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.

    Compulsion: -n. a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one's will.

    Putting these two components together we get obsessive compulsions. When a person is controlled by these two forces, they are said to have OCD, a type of anxiety disorder. Individuals with OCD are fixated on certain details ranging from checking door locks to picking their skin. Unlike most mental disorders, people with OCD know that there ritualistic behavior is irrational and unmerited; however, they literally cannot help themselves from engaging in these rituals.

    While it is perfectly normal for people to pay extra attention to detail at times (like rechecking to make sure you turned the oven off), those with OCD go far beyond that. This obsessive behavior often leaves them feeling alone, frustrated, ashamed, and depressed.

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    What is OCD? A Look at Symptoms

    Obsessions and compulsions typically revolve around a theme. According to FamilyDoctor.org, the most common obsessions/compulsions are:

    Common Obsessions

    • Fear of dirt or germs
    • Disgust with bodily waste or fluids
    • Concern with order, symmetry (balance) and exactness
    • Worry that a task has been done poorly, even when the person knows this is not true
    • Fear of thinking evil or sinful thoughts
    • Thinking about certain sounds, images, words or numbers all the time
    • Need for constant reassurance
    • Fear of harming a family member or friend

    Common Compulsions

    • Cleaning and grooming, such as washing hands, showering or brushing teeth over and over again
    • Checking drawers, door locks and appliances to be sure they are shut, locked or turned off
    • Repeating actions, such as going in and out of a door, sitting down and getting up from a chair, or touching certain objects several times
    • Ordering and arranging items in certain ways
    • Counting to a certain number, over and over
    • Saving newspapers, mail or containers when they are no longer needed
    • Seeking constant reassurance and approval
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    What Causes OCD?

    Like many other disorders, OCD is not fully understood. Even though the root of OCD may be somewhat obscured, there are several factors that are attributed to OCD. The Mayo Clinic has published the following list of possible causes:

    • Biology: changes in the brain chemistry are believed to play a part in OCD. It is also possible that OCD is hereditary.
    • Environment: OCD may stem from behaviors that are learned over time.
    • Insufficient serotonin: it is thought that serotonin levels may be a factor simply due to the fact that the use of medications to increase serotonin levels can ease OCD symptoms.
    • Strep throat: though more research needs to be conducted concerning this theory, some studies have shown that children with strep throat develop OCD after infection. “It has been hypothesized that these infections trigger a CNS autoimmune response that results in neuropsychiatric symptoms (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections [PANDAS])” (Greenburg, 2010).

    In addition, interpersonal relationships, stress, and neurological conditions (i.e. brain trauma, stimulant abuse, carbon monoxide poisoning) may also cause OCD.

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    References

    Compulsion. Definition. Retrieved November 7, 2010, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/compulsion

    FamiltDoctor.org (2010). Obsessive-compulsive disorder: What it is and how to treat it. Retrieved November 7, 2010, from http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/mentalhealth/anxiety/133.html

    Greenburg, W. M. (2010). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Retrieved November 7, 2010, from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/287681-overview

    Obsession. Definition. Retrieved November 7, 2010, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/obsession

    Mayo Clinic (2010). Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Symptoms. Retrieved November 7, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/DS00189/DSECTION=symptoms