The Psychology of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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What is OCD?

OCD, also known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a debilitating mental health disorder characterized by obsessive, uncontrollable thoughts and compulsive, uncontrollable behaviors. It is classified as an anxiety disorder because the obsessions and compulsions are manifestations of persistent anxiety. Obsessive thoughts can manifest in the form of unrealistic worries, usually over issues such as health, such as worrying that you’re going to die even if you are in perfectly good health, finances, such as worrying that you’re going to lose your house with no real justification or relationships, such as thinking that your partner is cheating on you but having no real proof to base this suspicion on. Compulsions include behaviors that attempt to limit the emotional impact of these obsessive thoughts. You may wash your hands fifty times a day to avoid contamination and germs that can cause disease. You may check your bank account balance twenty times a day to make sure you still have enough money. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the behaviors of OCD often end up controlling you, instead of you controlling the behaviors. You may realize that it’s ridiculous to wash your hands more than a few times daily, but you do it anyway.


In order to meet the diagnostic criteria for OCD, you must have compulsions, obsessions or both. It is possible to obtain a diagnosis of OCD with just obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors. You may have excessive, uncontrollable worries without compulsive behaviors. For example, you may worry about leaving the house, and instead of checking to make sure the door is locked, you just don’t ever leave your house. You avoid the anxiety-provoking stimuli completely.

Most obsessions in OCD have a similar theme, such as a fear of disease or germs or maintaining a strict order to things. Likewise, compulsions also have a similar theme, such as washing, cleaning or checking behaviors.

Psychology of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The obsessions and compulsions that characterize OCD often develop due to genetic factors, environmental influences and other factors, although the psychology of obsessive-compulsive disorder isn’t totally understood, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Although healthy individuals also sometimes suffer from obsessive thoughts and ritualistic behaviors or compulsions, people with OCD are controlled by their symptoms. They cannot leave the house without checking twenty times to make sure the front door is locked. They wash their hands every five minutes. They may clean their house obsessively, making sure they’ve vacuumed the same area of the carpet at least ten times, even if they just vacuumed it yesterday or even earlier the same day. People with OCD suffer from such a high level of anxiety that they don’t know what to do with their thoughts. They channel the anxiety created by these thoughts into the compulsive behaviors to attempt to get some relief. People with OCD feel like they have little control over external events in their life and are frightened by this fact. They expect the worst to happen, even if the likelihood is slim to none.


NIMH: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Mayo Clinic: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Symptoms