Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and what can you do to reduce OCD symptoms? OCD can overtake your life if you don't get the right OCD treatment.

While it is normal, on occasion, to double check your locks or that you have not left the stove on, the obsessive thoughts and compulsions that affect OCD sufferers can impact with their daily life.

While you may feel helpless in the face of obsessive compulsive disorder, the right OCD treatment reduces your OCD symptoms and increases the quality of your daily life.

Here we discuss:

  • what is OCD
  • the signs and symptoms of OCD
  • various OCD treatment options

What is obsessive compulsive disorder?

obsessive compulsive disorder

Did you know that OCD affects over 2 million Americans (NIMH)?

If you suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder you either have:

  • obtrusive thoughts (obsessions).

    Some common thoughts may include thoughts of death of loved ones, violence and harm to others, or thoughts that are against your religious beliefs.

  • repetitive behaviors (compulsion).

    Common rituals include repeatedly checking things such as locks, counting things and doing things (or touching things) in a particular sequence.

    Performing these rituals is not pleasant, but it may provide people with obsessive compulsive disorder a brief respite from their anxiety-provoking thoughts.

  • or a combination of both obstrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors.

Some examples of people with obsessive compulsive disorder that we have worked with are people who are obsessed with germs and have developed a ritual of hand washing.

Other individuals had persistent thoughts that they may be burgled and would spend hours checking and rechecking her locks before going to bed.

This is an OCD video of Gale and her fear of contamination.

Obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms

Most people with OCD symptoms experience obsessive thoughts and compulsions and they tend to recognize that these obsessive thoughts and compulsions are unrealistic.

Some examples of common obsessions (recurring thoughts or images that cause anxiety and stress) include:

  • fear of contamination from germs or poison
  • fear of committing some action that contradicts your values, for example sexual thoughts or religious or immoral thoughts
  • fear of harming oneself or others
  • fears of illness.

Roughly half of all OCD sufferers report multiple rituals.

Some examples of common rituals (repetitive behaviors to relieve anxiety or avoid fear situation) include:

  • checking (reported by about 50% of OCD sufferers)
  • cleaning (reported by 53% of OCD sufferers)
  • counting (reported by 36% of OCD sufferers)
  • hoarding items (reported by 19% of OCD sufferers)
  • needing to ask or confess (reported by 31% of OCD sufferers).

Some of the emotions that a person with OCD may experience include:

  • experiencing anxiety depression symptoms such as feeling down
  • a feeling of shame (and wanting to hide the OCD symptoms)
  • feeling frustrated and annoyed
  • feeling anxious and stressed.

Obsessive compulsive disorder treatment

OCD treatment ranges from treatment with a therapist to medication.

Most of the research that supports the effectiveness of obsessive compulsive disorder treatment and treating anxiety disorders in general comes from cognitive behavior therapy.

Cognitive behavior therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy emphasizes exposure and response prevention, while cognitive restructuring can be used to improve compliance and increase motivation.

Exposure to the individual's obsessive thoughts helps to weaken the link between the thoughts and anxiety.

The individual in OCD treatment is also asked not to act out their compulsions, with the idea that people with OCD symptoms realize their anxiety associated with their thought can be reduced by not performing the compulsion.

For example, in the video above, the compulsive hand washer was asked to touch things and then was prevented from washing her hands as Gale sat with her anxiety.

Over time, the urge to act out the compulsion to rid yourself of the anxiety of contamination is weakened, and eventually the individual will be able to give up the behavior.

Cognitive therapy targets the obsessive thoughts and assumptions and helps the individual to realize that their thoughts can be effectively responded to without compulsive behavior.

Individuals begin to see that their thoughts aren't dangerous and don't necessarily lead to action.

OCD medication

Medication can be helpful in some cases and the options available to you should be discussed with your psychologist or psychiatrist.

In this article we talk more about anti anxiety medications.

OCD treatment with relaxation exercises

There are a number of self-help for anxiety options to reduce anxiety.

These relaxation exercises are helpful for reducing stress and overall anxiety levels.

Relaxation exercises may include meditation, yoga, breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation.

Relaxation training not only provides anxiety relief but also increases an individual's confidence to deal with anxiety.

It is important that relaxation is not conducted during exposure as this may become another ritual!

Other OCD treatment options

Other options for treatment may include:

  • support groups in which people with OCD can discuss their experience with others
  • journaling
  • exercise
  • learning as much about OCD as you can.

This site is for information purposes only, we recommend that you see your doctor or mental health professional for advice.


Ball, S. G., Baer, L., & Otto, M. W. (1996). Symptom subtypes of obsessive-compulsive disorder in behavioral treatment studies: a quantitative review. Behavior, Research and Thearpy, 34, 47-51.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

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