What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?
Home/  Blog/ What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?


According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 1 percent of adults in the U.S. (roughly 2.2 million people) have been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (or OCD).


Many are familiar with or have heard of OCD, but there are still a lot of misconceptions about this condition. Some of the most frequently asked questions about it are answered below.


For those who are feeling uncertain, some of the most common questions about eating disorders are answered below.



What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?


The International OCD Foundation describes OCD as a mental health disorder characterized by a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.


Obsessions are intrusive, unwelcome thoughts, urges, and mental pictures that trigger distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors that one engages in to get rid of or minimize the intensity of their obsessions.


To a certain extent, most people deal with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors at some point. However, in those with OCD, the cycle is so extreme that it consumes their lives.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a person with OCD cannot control their thoughts or behaviors. They typically spend an hour a day or more on their obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, and they may experience significant problems in their daily life as a result (such as inability to go into certain places or perform tasks related to caring for their children.



What Are the Signs & Symptoms of OCD?


If someone struggles with OCD, they will deal with intrusive, obsessive thoughts and will feel compelled to act in a specific way to try and control them.


Any type of thought or urge could become an obsession, but the following are some of the most commonly reported ones among those with OCD:

  • Fear of contamination (from germs, bacteria, dirt, chemicals, etc.)
  • Worries about illness (obsessive worry about developing a streptococcal infection, for example)
  • Intense avoidance of harm (either being harmed or being responsible for harming someone else)
  • Perfectionism (obsessive concerns over things being precise, obsessions about needing to know/remember everything, etc.)
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts or urges


People with OCD engage in a variety of compulsive behaviors to manage these obsessions. Here are some well-known ones:

  • Frequent handwashing, grooming, or cleaning
  • Checking that nothing bad/harmful has happened to them or someone else
  • Repeating actions/activities (knocking, tapping, etc.)
  • Performing a task a certain number of times
  • Rearranging items until they feel “right”


What Are Common Examples of Tics?


According to the Centers for Disease Control, tics are sudden sounds and movements that people repeat uncontrollably and involuntarily.


Many people with obsessive-compulsive and related disorders also struggle with tic disorders (such as Tourette’s Syndrome). Research published by JAMA Psychiatry explains that 30 percent of people with OCD will also experience a tic disorder at some point.


Examples of tics include:

  • Blinking
  • Squinting
  • Eye rolling
  • Opening the eyes wide
  • Nose twitching
  • Nostril flaring


What Are the Root Causes of OCD?


At this point, it’s unclear exactly what causes OCD.


Some researchers believe it’s genetic. Others argue that it is caused by structural, chemical, and functional brain abnormalities.


Many researchers also believe that people with OCD develop compulsions to deal with feelings of anxiety. This may be particularly true for those who developed compulsive behaviors after going through a stressful or traumatic event.



What Activates My OCD Behavior?


Everyone who struggles with OCD has different triggers. Working with a therapist can help them identify what, specifically, activates their compulsions.


The following are some potential triggers:



It’s also common to be triggered by situations related to specific obsessions. For example, if someone has obsessive thoughts around cleanliness, they may be triggered when they enter a dirty room.



What Does It Mean to Have Intrusive Thoughts?


An intrusive thought is any type of thought that pops into one’s head without warning. These thoughts can enter at any time in a person’s daily life.


Some intrusive thoughts are more concerning than others. Some intrusive thoughts are linked to OCD. They tend to be repetitive and are typically very disturbing or distressing.


One with OCD may display obsessive behaviors in response to the intrusive thoughts.


OCD trigger


Is OCD a Form of Insanity?


OCD is a type of mental illness and a psychiatric diagnosis. Insanity is actually a legal term.


“Insanity” describes someone who is so severely mentally ill that they cannot separate fantasy from reality, conduct their affairs, or be held responsible for their actions.


If someone with severe or unmanaged OCD committed a crime, their lawyer may use the term “insanity” as part of their defense. From a psychiatric perspective, though, OCD is not a form of insanity.




What Kind of Therapy Is Best for OCD?


One of the most popular types of therapy for OCD is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). According to the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, the goal of CBT is to help patients change their thought patterns and the behaviors those thought patterns trigger.


A component of CBT that’s known as Exposure and Response Prevention (or ERP) is also helpful for people with OCD.


A study published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry explains that ERP involves gradual exposure to an object or obsessions that a person may fear. Over time, this slow exposure helps the person with OCD to learn to respond to triggers without compulsive behaviors.


Research published by the American Psychiatric Association shows that treatments like deep brain stimulation (DBS) may be helpful, too.


DBS (which is also used to manage other mental disorders, such as depression and addiction) involves the implantation of electrodes into the brain. The electrodes are controlled by a pacemaker-like device and regulate abnormal impulses.




What Kind of Medication Is Best for OCD?


Many people with OCD see the best results when they combine therapy with medication.


Some of the most effective medications for managing OCD symptoms include tricyclic antidepressants (such as Clomipramine) and Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs (such as Fluoxetine, Fluvoxamine, Paroxetine, and Sertraline). Depression medications seem to treat OCD effectively. As such, we advise you to work with a prescriber.





Can OCD Be Cured?


There is currently no known cure for OCD. However, with therapy and the proper medication dosage, many people with OCD manage their unwanted thoughts and compulsive behaviors and experience happy, fulfilling lives.



What Should I Do if Someone I Know Has OCD?


For those who suspect someone in their lives has or is developing OCD, the most important thing is to be there for them.



Shaming someone into therapy or medication rarely works out. Approaching with patience, compassion, and non-judgment is much more helpful.







American Psychiatric Association

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Browne, H. A., Hansen, S. N., Buxbaum, J. D., Gair, S. L., Nissen, J. B., Nikolajsen, K. H., … & Grice, D. E. (2015). Familial clustering of tic disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. JAMA psychiatry, 72(4), 359-366.

Centers for Disease Control

Hezel, D. M., & Simpson, H. B. (2019). Exposure and response prevention for obsessive-compulsive disorder: A review and new directions. Indian journal of psychiatry, 61(Suppl 1), S85.

International OCD Foundation

National Institute of Mental Health

University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash




Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. We publish quality material for your own education. Our publications are researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.




Written and reviewed by

Dr Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, ACS, LMFT

Dr. Kyle Zrenchik is the Co-Founder of ALL IN, the Creator of the Couples Erotic Flow model for treating sexual issues in individuals and couples, Designer of the Deep Dive programs at ALL IN, and is one of the most well-respected couples counselors in the Twin Cities.

Need Help ?