Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): causes, symptoms and treatment

Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD as it’s more commonly known, is a mental health condition in which a person has frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

A common misconception is that OCD is a habit, usually in relation to cleanliness, but OCD is in fact a mental health condition affecting millions of people worldwide that can be extremely distressing and interfere with your life.

But how can you tell if you’re suffering from it and how is it treated? Dr Roger Henderson explains:



What is obsessive compulsive disorder?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common but serious anxiety-related condition where the sufferer experiences frequent and recurring obsessive thoughts, usually followed by repetitive compulsions or impulses in response to the obsession.

A sufferer with OCD will typically fall into one of four main categories:

🔹 Checking rituals
🔹 Contamination thoughts
🔹 Hoarding tendencies
🔹 Intrusive thoughts and constant rumination on a particular subject



What are obsessions?

Obsessions are persistent, unwanted and intrusive unpleasant thoughts that keep coming into your mind. These are different to the normal everyday worries we all have about simple problems.

Obsessions are persistent, unwanted and unpleasant thoughts that keep coming into your mind.

Typical obsessions include fears about contamination with dirt and germs, or catching viruses such as HIV.

Others include leaving doors unlocked, causing people harm, worrying about swearing, needing things to be arranged in certain exact ways or a fear of behaving badly in public. However, an obsession can be about anything.



What are compulsions?

Compulsions are repetitive physical actions or mental rituals that are performed repeatedly to try to neutralise the anxiety caused by obsessions.

These often interfere with normal daily living – for example, washing your hands dozens of times a day – and any relief from anxiety they may cause reinforces the original obsession, and so effectively worsens the OCD.

Other examples of compulsions include checking doors repeatedly to make sure they are locked, compulsive cleaning, counting, organising, and saying words or numbers silently.

💡 It is important to point out that people with OCD do realise that their actions are irrational but feel powerless to prevent doing them because of their anxiety.

Who is at risk of OCD?

The exact cause of OCD is unclear but the chances of developing it is higher than average if your mother, father, brother or sister suffers from it.

Anyone of any age can develop OCD – regardless of gender or social background.

It is thought that between 1-3 in 100 adults in the UK have OCD. The World Health Organisation has ranked OCD in the top 10 of the most disabling illnesses of all kinds, in terms of how it affects someone’s quality of life and their associated loss of earnings.

Anyone of any age can develop OCD – regardless of gender or social background – but it usually first develops between the ages of 18 and 30.

Estimates put the number of UK sufferers at almost three quarters of a million people, but at least half of these are classified as being in the severe category of OCD and sufferers often go many years without being diagnosed, often because of feelings of shame or guilt they have about their OCD.



How is OCD diagnosed?

If you are concerned that you may have OCD, see your doctor. They will ask a number of questions, including the following:

  • Do you wash or clean a lot?
  • Do you repeatedly check things?
  • Are there persistent thoughts that upset you?
  • Do your daily activities take a long time to finish?
  • Are you concerned about putting things in a special order?
  • Do you have to start all over again if this order is disturbed?
  • Are you upset by mess?

    If it is felt from these initial questions that OCD may be a possibility, then a more detailed assessment is needed. It is diagnosed when any obsessions and compulsions take up at least an hour or more of time, cause significant distress in someone’s life, or interfere with normal daily functioning at home, work or school, or interfere with family life and relationships.

        Children suffering from OCD may be referred to a specialist mental health team who deal with assessing and treating children with OCD.



        What is the treatment for OCD?

        There are a few effective treatment plans for obsessive compulsive disorder:

        ✅ Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)

        CBT is a type of ‘talking’ therapy that focuses on the immediate problems someone has and helps them explore alternative ways of thinking to help challenge their beliefs and anxieties. It is probably the single most effective treatment for OCD. So, if you have OCD it is very helpful to understand that thoughts or obsessions in themselves do no harm, and that compulsive acts are not needed to counteract them.

        ✅ Medication, usually with an SSRI antidepressant medicine

        Although they usually used to treat depression, SSRI antidepressant medicines can also reduce the symptoms of OCD, even if depression is not present. It is believed they work by altering levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which many specialists believe is directly involved in causing OCD symptoms.



        Mental health support

        If you think you might have OCD, make an appointment with your GP. Meanwhile, try one of the following resources:

        ✔️ OCD UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from OCD.

        ✔️ OCD Action: a charitable group offering support to and raising awareness of OCD sufferers.

        ✔️ Anxiety UK: a charity which supports those with any type of anxiety, OCD included.

        ✔️ The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.

        ✔️ Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.