Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in our nation alone. One of the most prevalent and distressing anxiety disorders is known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
If you suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may be all too familiar with the repetitive, intrusive thoughts and behaviors that characterize this condition. Obsessive thoughts can be absolutely debilitating in a person's life and often lead to compulsions, or repetitive behaviors that are meant to alleviate the anxiety caused by the obsessions.
At Cognitive Behavior Institute (CBI), our Center for OCD is dedicated to providing evidence-based treatment for people who live with obsessive-compulsive disorder. With a focus on methods that are based in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), we offer our patients a comprehensive and individualized approach to treatment that can help them find long-term relief from their symptoms.
Here are some important facts everyone should know about OCD, as well as information about the specialized care we offer at our Center for OCD:
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder. It is an illness that traps individuals in cycles of repetitive thoughts, actions, and behaviors. The anxiety component (nervousness) produced by these thoughts leads an individual to an urgent need to perform certain rituals or routines (compulsions). These routines are performed in an attempt to prevent the thoughts or make them go away.
For patients struggling with OCD, daily life becomes a series of challenges and rituals that can take up an enormous amount of time and energy. The compulsions are time-consuming and often prevent people from participating in activities they enjoy or need to do for work or school.
What Causes OCD?
Like other mental disorders, the exact cause of OCD is not fully understood. However, research suggests that certain factors may play a role in its development, including:
- Brain structure and function: There is evidence that OCD may be caused by abnormal functioning in certain areas of the brain, as well as changes in the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other.
- Family history: OCD often runs in families, which suggests that it may have a genetic component.
- Environmental factors: Stressful life events or trauma (such as abuse) may trigger OCD symptoms in people who are predisposed to the disorder.
It is important to note that OCD is not caused by stress or life events. However, stressful life events can trigger OCD symptoms or make them worse. People who have been diagnosed with OCD report that the disorder can significantly interfere with their daily lives.
Who is At Risk for OCD?
OCD can affect people of all ages, but symptoms typically appear in adolescence or early adulthood. Children can develop OCD, but it is much less common in this age group.
While OCD can affect people of any gender, race, or socioeconomic background, certain risk factors may increase a person's chance of developing the disorder. These include:
- Family history: As mentioned above, OCD often runs in families. Having a parent or close relative with OCD increases a person's risk of developing the disorder.
- Gender: OCD is slightly more common in women than men.
- Stressful life events: As mentioned above, stressful life events or trauma can trigger OCD symptoms or make them worse.
What Are the Typical OCD Symptoms?
Generally, obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by compulsive behavior and obsessive thoughts. These can take many different forms and can range from moderate symptoms that are manageable with self-help techniques to severe symptoms that significantly interfere with a person's ability to function in daily life.
People with OCD often experience obsessional thinking, which refers to persistent and unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses that are intrusive and cause anxiety or distress. These unwanted thoughts are usually about things that the individual considers to be dangerous, such as contamination, harm, or death.
Obsessions can take the form of disproportionate, obsessive fears about things like natural disasters, illness, or personal safety. Some people have inappropriate sexual thoughts that frighten and disturb them, or become preoccupied with religion or morality. Others may be fixated on symmetry or orderliness to the point where they can't start a task unless everything is perfectly aligned.
Most people have occasional intrusive thoughts, but people with OCD cannot simply ignore or forget these thoughts. These obsessional thoughts are persistent thoughts that cause significant distress and anxiety. In some cases, these symptoms can be so severe that they interfere with a person's ability to function in daily life.
Repetitive Behaviors (Compulsions)
People with OCD obsessions often feel the need to perform certain rituals or routines (compulsions) in an attempt to prevent the aforementioned thoughts or make them go away. These compulsive behaviors can take up a lot of time and energy, and can prevent people from participating in activities they enjoy or need to do for work or school.
Some of the most common compulsions include:
- Excessive hand-washing: This is perhaps one of the most well-known OCD symptoms. People with OCD often feel the need to wash their hands excessively, sometimes for hours at a time. This can cause dry, cracked skin and other problems.
- Excessive cleaning: People with OCD may feel the need to clean their homes obsessively in an attempt to prevent contamination. This can interfere with work, school, and other activities.
- Checking: People with OCD may feel the need to check things repeatedly, such as locks, appliances, or lights. This may be done in an attempt to prevent harm or catastrophe.
- Counting: Some people with OCD count compulsively in an attempt to control their environment or ward off bad luck.
- Arranging things: People with OCD may feel the need to arrange things in a particular way, in a certain order, or according to certain patterns.
It’s important to note that these are some common compulsions and that mental health is not narrowly defined by specific actions. Every person with OCD is unique, and their individual experiences should be taken into account during treatment.
Social Anxiety and Isolation
Obsessive-compulsive disorder can cause people to feel isolated and alone. For some, this is because the symptoms of OCD can be embarrassing and difficult to talk about. People with OCD may fear that others will judge them or think they are crazy. As a result, they may withdraw from social activities and relationships.
It's also common for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder to avoid stressful events, places, or feared situations that trigger their symptoms. For example, someone with a fear of contamination may avoid public places, such as restrooms, schools, or crowded areas.
All of these factors can make it difficult to work, go to school, or participate in activities with friends and family that may be perceived as triggering, stressful life events.
What's the Best Course for Treating OCD?
The best treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder is not one size fits all. There are a variety of effective OCD treatments available, and the most successful treatment plans will likely involve a combination of different therapies.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective ways to treat OCD. CBT involves working with a mental health professional to identify and challenge negative, obsessive thoughts and beliefs that contribute to OCD symptoms.
At CBI's Center for OCD, we specialize in a type of CBT called exposure and response (ritual) prevention (EX/RP). EX/RP is a highly successful, durable method of treating OCD, and treatment sessions involve gradually exposing oneself to the things they fear and avoid while learning healthy coping and problem-solving skills.
For those who need additional support, medication may be an option. A class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) is often used to treat OCD. These medications work by increasing levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood and anxiety.
Can You Prevent Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
There is no known way to prevent OCD, but there are things that can be done to reduce the risk of symptoms becoming too difficult to cope with. These include:
Getting treatment for anxiety or depression: If you have anxiety or depression, treating these conditions can help reduce the risk of developing OCD.
Practicing stress-reduction techniques: Stress can trigger OCD symptoms. Learning and practicing stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, relaxation, and exercise, can help reduce the risk of OCD.
What is preventable is the negative impact OCD can have on your life. With treatment focused on response prevention, you can learn to manage your symptoms and live a full, productive life.
Visit the Top Mental Health Counselors in Pittsburgh
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious mental illness that can cause significant problems in daily life. However, there are effective treatments available.
If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, seek professional help. With treatment, most people with OCD can learn to manage their symptoms and live full, productive lives.
The Center for OCD at Cognitive Behavior Institute is a specialized treatment center that offers EX/RP and other evidence-based treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Our team of expert clinicians has extensive experience treating OCD and related conditions. We offer a variety of treatment options to meet the needs of each individual, and our goal is to help you achieve lasting freedom from OCD.
To learn more about our program, contact us here. If you'd like to see more OCD articles from our team, check out our other blogs!