February 16, 2017

A Guide to What is OCD: Signs, Symptoms and More

 "What is OCD?" is a question asked by millions of people every day. While it seems the term 'OCD' has become more widespread in our everyday language, it appears it's fundamentally understood. Discover the real answers behind what is OCD.

At times, we might hear people banter about how "OCD" they are. How they relish about making lists, or how they must have certain things be a certain way. The reality is, however, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a very real problem. People who are afflicted with OCD, live with deeper than 'slightly obsessive' tendencies. Unfortunately, this means most people with OCD can't easily laugh away such behaviors. Understandably, the term "OCD" has been hurled around society as it's become general knowledge. The problem is, amongst our global society, there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding. Or, in a sense, an actual and full understanding of the true nature of what is OCD.

How 'real' is OCD? The World Health Organization ranks OCD amongst the top 20 causes of "illness-related disability" for people between the ages of 15 and 44 worldwide. To add to this, according to the ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, OCD rituals often inherit "depressive symptoms." But that's only part it. Severe OCD is also related to other disorders which we'll talk about further below. It's such reasons, people all over the world are seeking OCD treatments. Whether you’re concerned that you might have OCD, or you’re interested in what OCD is really about, then, this next part is for you.

What is OCD?

According to a study published by NCBI, obsessive-compulsive disorder is defined as a "clinical syndrome." A type of anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable and unreasonable thoughts and, repetitive rituals. People with OCD tend to have overwhelming and intrusive thoughts. Obsessions that are accompanied by persistent compulsions to perform certain behaviors and rituals. As-well-as acts which are carried out to 'satisfy' constantly circulating thoughts. So, what are some common OCD behaviors?
  • Excessive cleaning (e.g. washing of hands)
  • Excessive concern with right/wrong (i.e. in the sense of morality)
  • Compulsive superstitions about fortune/misfortune (e.g. numbers and symbols of luck)
  • Compulsive concerns over evenness or exactness (i.e. a related to perfectionism)

How Prevalent is OCD?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that there’s a difference between people with a 'clinical diagnosis' of OCD and those that 'think' they have OCD. For instance, the number of individuals with clinically recognized cases of OCD are much lower than the actual number of people who think they have it. Although determining the real prevalence of OCD is difficult, research suggests that somewhere around 1 and 3 percent of individuals actually have OCD.


While OCD has become a widely known condition, it’s important to understand OCD has two different types of conditions. Two distinctive conditions which have entirely different effects. The two conditions are:
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and,
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)

What’s the Difference Between the Two?

Generally, the symptoms are the same across both variants. The real difference between the two is the attitude the person with the condition has towards their “quirks.” For instance, people with OCPD will believe their obsessions are justified. They will dismiss any type of diagnosis and cannot be convinced of their obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Instead, they enjoy their obsessions. While OCD patients do not. Indeed, people with OCD will generally acknowledge they have a problem. Even if it isn’t an immediate realization.

Diagnosing OCD

OCD, like many other conditions, is diagnosed through its symptoms. Currently, there aren’t many reliable tests available to accurately identify the disorder. But although difficult to diagnose, there are obvious symptoms linked with OCD behaviors. The most obvious being compulsions. The 'obsessive rituals' people with OCD feel compelled to perform.

Take for example Emily, a first-year college student. Emily has to wash her hands a certain number of times before she can do certain things. Actions such as touch food or use her laptop. Tim, on the other hand, is an employee at a local accounting firm. Tim’s OCD behaviors compel him to turn the light switch on and off as well as check door locks a very particular number of times before going to bed.

In both Emily and Tim's cases above, the point is, people with OCD have their own particular compulsions. Interestingly, however, despite how different they are—they all have one thing in common: they are beyond the person’s control. As far as Emily or Tim is concerned, their particular compulsion is the only way they can relieve the stress building inside of them. If they don’t complete the task, they may feel something terrible could happen–or so their brain tells them.

Other Illnesses that Relate to OCD

OCD can, and often does, lead to other types of psychological illnesses. What types of illnesses? Disorders such as anxiety, mood, major depressive, and in some cases even bipolar disorder. All of which can significantly prevent people with OCD from going about their normal lives. In addition to above, other related illnesses to OCD include Tourette Syndrome (Tics), Excoriation Disorder (Dermatillomania), Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and Drug Addiction. Although each of these related illnesses can cause emotional and psychological distress, generally, only severe cases of OCD are prone to such related disorders.

What Causes OCD?

We discuss the causes of OCD in more depth in the next article. For now, however, outlined are two prevailing theories behind the causes of OCD.
  • Theory 1: The problem is entirely 'psychiatric.' This theory suggests the person who exhibits OCD behavior feels responsible and guilty for their obsessive thoughts. Ultimately, this leads to OCD behaviors.
  • Theory 2: There is a 'physical' reason for the problem. Doctors and scientists supporting this theory believe that; affected brains have abnormalities that cause OCD behaviors. This defect usually tracks back to the chemical serotonin. A neurotransmitter which contributes to the feelings of happiness. When this neurotransmitter doesn't fire correctly, that's when neurological problems develop which the lead to OCD behaviors.

Am I at Risk?

For one thing, some people are naturally at higher risk for developing OCD than others. This, in large part, is due to the seemingly 'genetic' component of the condition. So here are a few things to consider regarding your own risk to having OCD. Firstly, people with a family history of OCD are more likely to exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors than those without any family connection.

Secondly, individuals who have suffered significant psychological trauma are at risk of developing OCD. This is because they often feel obsessive about the guilt surrounding whatever event occurred in their lives. This means, eventually, it can lead to a serious problem with OCD behavior. If, however, you don't fall into either of the above, chances of you having a clinical diagnosis of OCD is somewhat unlikely.

Treatment for OCD

Regardless of how severe the OCD, it can be treated. Below are several different ways OCD can be effectively treated:
  1. Medication: This route is just part of the bigger picture. There are some OCD medications but, usually, they will only make a difference if they are part of a broader behavioral modification program.
  2. Behavioral Therapy: This route is designed to 'teach' the person with OCD how to cope with the anxiety that comes from not performing their ritual. Despite their brain telling them, they must. How is it done? It’s done through slowly exposing the person to the very things that make them nervous or anxious. Gradually, they’ll work to resist the compulsions until they can get through a whole day without performing their compulsive ritual.
It's worth noting, medications that are most often prescribed for OCD patients are those that are designed to control serotonin in the brain. Think of serotonin as a way to ‘stabilize’ your mood. Or, to help reduce the number of 'highs' and 'lows' throughout your day. It's these types of medications that are targeted to help restore balance to serotonin levels and help control OCD-related anxiety.

See also: The 5 Major Causes of OCD Backed by Science.

When to Seek Help

For one thing, it can be difficult for people with OCD to 'know' whether they need help. It’s another thing entirely, for them to seek it. Many people today live normal lives with mild to moderate OCD. It's completely possible. They’re able to do this because they’re able to figure out ways to incorporate their OCD rituals into their day. They may wash their hands more often than the average person. And that’s okay. As long as it doesn’t cause any problems or disruption either to others or their day, it’s not necessarily a problem. It’s only when the rituals and associated anxieties affect a person’s ability to live a normal life. That’s when OCD needs proper treatment.

Making the effort to really understand what causes OCD is an important first step. And you’ve done that here. The next step is to ask yourself: “Is my OCD a problem for me?” If it is, it’s important for you to figure out how to control your obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a doctor or other health professional if you feel the need to. Just make sure you do something about it sooner than later. In the next article, we’ll explore further the causes of OCD. We’ll see you there.