What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by intrusive, anxious thoughts that often result in ritualistic behaviors and routines. These inescapable thoughts and actions are distinguished by the way in which they interfere with an individual's ability to function on a daily basis.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms of OCD can be divided into obsessions and compulsions.


Obsessions are described as being “ego dystonic" which means that even though the person who experiences them recognizes them as their own thoughts, they feel the obsessions are outside of their control. Obsessions that are symptomatic of OCD include:

  • Severe anxiety and obsessive thoughts regarding contamination and germs
  • Worrying about having done something bad by accident (e.g., accidentally running someone over with a car)
  • Worrying about having forgotten something important (e.g., forgetting to lock a door)
  • Needing to have things in a particular order (e.g., having things arranged symmetrically)
  • Impulses to do terrible or embarrassing things (e.g., harming a child or yelling out profanities in church)
  • Thoughts of graphic or disturbing images


Compulsions are repetitive physical or mental actions that a person engages in to reduce anxiety. Often, the compulsion is designed to counteract or undo an obsession.

  • Excessive checking (e.g., to make sure doors are locked or to make sure some type of mistake wasn't made)
  • Excessive counting
  • Repetitive praying

In order to qualify for a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, someone must have either obsessions or compulsions (or both) and these must interfere with their daily functioning. The person must also recognize, to some degree, that the obsessions and/or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable.

Causes of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Research has yet to provide evidence-based, direct causes of OCD. However, the following factors are noted as possible contributors to the disorder:

  • Family history of OCD
  • Abnormal levels of serotonin in the brain
  • Experiencing a highly stressful or traumatic event
  • Depression

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Treatment

OCD can be treated with both therapy and medications and usually responds best when both are combined.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Involves helping the individual suffering from OCD to see the connection between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Once this connection is understood, CBT uses a variety of techniques to change the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that underlie and perpetuate the OCD.
  • Medications for OCD: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most frequently used class of medications for OCD. SSRIs work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the space between neurons called a synapse. Psychiatrists generally consider all SSRIs to be equally effective for OCD, but the SSRIs that have an FDA indication for OCD treatment are fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and fluvoxamine (Luvox).