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Mental Health

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) explained

As its name suggests, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that involves worries (obsessions) and rituals (compulsions). Of course, we all have worries and routines, but it’s quite different if you have OCD. If that's the case, obsessions and compulsions have a greater effect on your life. And, in some cases, may even affect how you think, feel and even act.

Fortunately, with an accurate diagnosis, treatment can provide relief.

Obsessions and compulsions

Obsessions are unwanted impulses, thoughts or images that occur repeatedly, and simply can’t be stopped. Common obsessions include:

  • The fear of contamination — germs, dirt, bodily fluids, environmental factors
  • Losing control — stealing, yelling out, turning violent on yourself or others
  • Being perfect or having a sense of order — making mistakes, forgetting to do something, storing and remembering information, keeping items in a certain place or position

Compulsions are behaviours that help reduce the anxiety caused by obsessions. They help block, offset, counter or neutralize obsessions — even for a short period of time. Common compulsions include:

  • Excessive washing/cleaning — washing hands, bathing/showering, brushing teeth, cleaning household items or other objects, avoiding anything that may be “dirty” or “contaminated”
  • Excessive checking — door locks, on/off switches, electrical plugs, looking for written mistakes, checking that family members are safe
  • Counting or repeating — tapping, touching, blinking or performing tasks a “good” or “safe” number of times (e.g. getting in an out of a chair three times, stepping in and out of a doorway five times)
  • Hoarding — collecting items (paper, bottles, garbage) and being unable to throw them away

OCD can affect the quality of life for family members as well. For example, people with OCD will refuse to shake hands if they fear germs or insist family members bathe and/or change clothes when entering their home.

How OCD is diagnosed

OCD affects approximately one in 40 adults, and usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood.

Studies also show that:

  • It affects men and women equally — regardless of race or background
  • People between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the greatest risk — but many adults with OCD say their symptoms first appeared when they were children or adolescents.
  • It runs in families — and genes likely play a partial role. It begins gradually and symptoms can change — for example, a person switch from obsessive hand washing to obsessive checking instead.

Healthcare professionals use psychiatric tools (like examinations and questionnaires) to test for obsessive-compulsive disorder and the severity of symptoms. They also rule-out other possibilities — like panic disorder.

In order to make a diagnosis, certain factors or features must be present. For example people with OCD will:

  • Spend more than one hour a day with obsessive thoughts and compulsions. Or their obsessions and compulsions impair their lives or cause distress.
  • Get some relief but don’t get pleasure from their compulsions.
  • Recognize that their obsessions and compulsions are unreasonable or extreme.

Sadly, it can take an average of 14 to 17 years for some people with OCD to get treatment. That’s because rather than seek the help of a healthcare professional, some people with OCD hide their symptoms out of embarrassment, aren’t aware treatment is available and some simply can’t afford it.

But while people can have OCD for years before getting diagnosed, effective treatment is available.

You can also visit Find Support and search “OCD” for organizations and resources in your area.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder explained
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