Obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly known as OCD, is characterised by a pattern of unwanted fears and thoughts which can lead a person to compulsions (repetitive forms of behaviours). These compulsions can adversely affect daily life and cause distress.

What is OCD?

When a person with OCD attempts to stop these compulsions or obsessions, their anxiety and distress can increase. In this respect, often the person feels that their compulsive acts are necessary in order to ease stress. OCD is usually rooted in certain fears - such as being contaminated by germs. These may involve the compulsive washing of hands, even to the point of them becoming sore and damaged.

OCD symptoms are typically classed as obsession symptoms or compulsion symptoms. You may have either, or both.

Obsessions symptoms can include: repeated and unwanted thoughts which cause distress or anxiety, and can lead to a compulsive act in order to address them. Themes typically related to obsessions can include: fear of dirt or contamination, needing things to be orderly, having difficulty coping with uncertainty, and having aggressive thoughts.

Compulsion symptoms can include themes such as; checking things, washing and cleaning, counting, following rigid or strict routines, and demanding reassurance.

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Causes of OCD

While the exact cause of OCD is not yet fully understood, the condition is thought to be a combination of; biology as OCD could be the result of changes to the body's natural chemistry; genetics, although specific genes have not yet been identified; and learning, with fears and behaviours developing over time due to a certain environment or the behaviours of family members or friends.

You may be at more risk of developing OCD if you have family members with the disorder, you have another mental health disorder, or if you have experienced stressful or traumatic life events.

Diagnosing OCD

Among the diagnostic steps which are typically used is a psychological evaluation. This usually involves a discussion about your feelings, behaviours and symptoms, to help determine if OCD is negatively impacting on your quality of life. As well as talking to you, a doctor or mental health professional may talk to your family members or friends in order to further their understanding. A physical examination can help to rule out other conditions which could be causing your symptoms.

Treatment of OCD

While treatment for OCD may not provide a cure, it can be effective in controlling symptoms. The two main treatment types for OCD are psychotherapy and medications. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy which has proven to be effective in treating OCD. CBT can include exposure and response prevention (ERP), which involves the gradual exposure to the feared obsession or object, and teaching ways to resist the urge to carry out compulsive acts.

Medications which can help to control OCD's obsessions and compulsions include; anti-depressants, such as clomipramine, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine and sertraline. Typically, the objective of medications is to control the symptoms using the lowest possible dosage.