What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

When people think of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), things like excessive hand-washing, or neatness/cleanliness, perfection come to mind. While these traits may be present in some people with OCD, there is a lot more to it. The way OCD manifests is different for every person who has it.

What is OCD?

The definition of OCD, defined by the American Psychiatric Association is as follows: “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions). The repetitive behaviors, such as hand washing, checking on things or cleaning, can significantly interfere with a person’s daily activities and social interactions (APA, 2020).”

It is important to note that those unwanted thoughts, ideas, and obsessions vary from person to person. One person may have the thoughts that if they don’t do a certain thing a certain way, that their loved one is going to die. Another person might have the thoughts that if they don’t have things in a very specific order, something else horrible is going to happen. Those thoughts then lead to people performing actions, or compulsions, to prevent the bad thing from happening.

Other examples of intrusive thoughts could be fear of getting severely sick, fear of external forces controlling your words or actions if you don’t do “XYZ”. There really are no limits to the types of intrusive thoughts one might have. More examples of compulsions include putting things in a very specific order, flicking lights on and off a specific number of times, cleaning the same surfaces/places more than once in a short period of time, checking to make sure the doors are locked, even returning home to make sure of this, no matter how strongly you believe you locked it.

Why and How Does One Develop OCD?

As with any mental health condition, there is no one definitive cause of OCD. However, we know from large bodies of research that OCD can develop as a result of a change or something off balance in the brain. Those chemical changes then lead to these obsessions that in turn, lead to compulsions. There is also believed to be a genetic component to OCD that it can be passed down to individuals from their parents. Other factors include anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of OCD align strongly with the obsessions and compulsions discussed earlier. Some things to look out for include excessive thoughts about germs, “messiness”, constant questioning of whether or not you did something, intrusive sexual thoughts, repeatedly counting, checking, cleaning, and other repetitive behavior. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about the possibility of having OCD.


There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to treating OCD. As with any condition, everyone responds to certain treatments and approaches differently. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or medication therapy are the most common forms of treatment for OCD. Some people utilize one or a combination of these approaches.

CBT is a type of therapy that is designed to help individuals better manage and cope with unwanted thoughts/behaviors. It follows the paradigm of how our thoughts connect/lead to our emotions that then drive our behavior. In OCD, it helps form the connection of how those thoughts (obsessions – i.e. “something bad is going to happen”) leads to the emotion (fear and anxiety that this event might actually happen), which then then leads to the behavior (compulsion) to try and counteract those intrusive thoughts and emotions. The cycle continues and repeats. So, in CBT, often there are exposure exercises that practice exposing individuals to those intrusive thoughts that spark their anxiety. The provider aims to train the individuals to refrain from performing compulsions following those thoughts to work toward developing healthier ways of managing them when they come up. That comes with the goal that as clients continue to avoid/refrain from the compulsive behavior following their obsessions, they will soon realize that nothing “bad” is going to happen if they do not do them. They also may learn an alternative coping mechanism.

As for medication, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) are often used to help manage the anxiety and/or depression that can coincide with OCD. Our Principal Investigator, Dr. Hatti explains how this works in his interview with CBS.

If you are struggling with OCD, or would like to learn more about our study, visit our website, or call 610-891-7200 for more information!

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