Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by the sufferer experiencing repeated obsessions and/or compulsions that interfere with the person's ability to function socially, occupationally, or educationally, either as a result of the amount of time that is consumed by the symptoms or the marked fear or other distress suffered by the person.
An obsession is defined as a thought, impulse, or image that either recurs or persists and causes severe anxiety. These thoughts are irresistible to the OCD sufferer despite the person's realizing that these thoughts are irrational. Examples of obsessions include worries about germs/cleanliness or about safety or order. A compulsion is a ritual/behavior that the individual with OCD engages in repeatedly, either because of their obsessions or according to a rigid set of rules. The aforementioned obsessions may result in compulsions like excessive hand washing, skin picking, lock checking, or repeatedly arranging items. Different than compulsions, habits are behaviors that occur with little to no thought, are repeated routinely, are not done in response to an obsession, are not particularly time-consuming, and do not cause stress. Examples of habits include cracking knuckles or storing car keys in a coat pocket.
The diagnosis of OCD has been described in medicine for at least the past 100 years. Statistics on the number of people in the United States who have OCD range from 1%-2%, or more than 2 to 3 million adults. Interestingly, the frequency with which it occurs and the symptoms with which it presents are remarkably similar, regardless of the culture of the sufferer. The average age of onset of the disorder is 19 years, although it often begins during the childhood or the teenage years and usually develops by age 30. It tends to afflict more males than females.
Individuals with OCD are more likely to also develop chronic hair pulling (tricotillomania) muscle or vocal tics (Tourettes’ Disorder) or an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. OCD sufferers are also predisposed to developing other mood problems, like depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks. OCD puts its sufferers at a higher risk of having excessive concerns about their bodies (somatoform disorders) like hypochondriasis, which is excessive worry about having a serious illness.
While there is no known specific cause for OCD, family history and chemical imbalances in the brain are thought to contribute to the development of the illness. Treatments include cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, behavioral therapies, and medications. Behavioral therapies for OCD include ritual prevention and exposure therapy. Ritual prevention involves a mental-health professional helping the OCD sufferer to endure longer and longer periods of resisting the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors. Exposure therapy is the process by which the individual with OCD is put in touch with situations that tend to increase the OCD sufferer's urge to engage in compulsions, then helping him or her resist that urge. Cognitive/behavioral therapists help patients change the negative styles of thinking and behaving that are often associated with the anxiety involved with obsessive compulsive disorder.