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Signs & Symptoms of OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health condition that brings about extreme turmoil in the lives of those plagued by it. Known more commonly as OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder is an illness that is characterized by patterns of recurrent, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts that individuals find themselves incapable of escaping from, despite desperately wanting to, as well as by the presence of ritualistic, compulsive behaviors that individuals feel compelled to perform, despite not wanting to. The obsessions and compulsions that individuals with OCD feel overwhelmed by can take up a significant amount of time, can cause clinically significant distress, and can elicit impairments in a person’s ability to function socially, occupationally, or in other important areas of daily living. While the detriments that OCD can bring about on a person’s life can be monumental, there are fortunately a number of treatment options available that can help individuals overcome their obsessions and compulsions and return to a healthy manner of daily functioning, free from their distressing symptoms.

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As a mental health condition that is known to affect men and women in equal prevalence, obsessive-compulsive disorder is believed to afflict approximately one percent of the United States population. The average age of onset of OCD is estimated at 19, yet conclusive research has demonstrated that 25% of cases in which individuals are diagnosed with OCD occur by the age of 14.

Causes and Risk Factors for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

There is said to be a combination of factors that work together in rendering individuals susceptible to developing the onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Consider the following:

Genetic: Despite the fact that obsessive-compulsive disorder is known to run in families, the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) reports that there is currently no conclusive research that demonstrates why some people develop it while others do not. Genetics also come into play during the development of a person’s individual temperament and personality, both of which can add to an individual’s susceptibility to exhibit tendencies that are anxious and/or ritualistic in nature, such as those exhibited by individuals who are suffering from OCD.

Environmental: There are many professionals in the field of mental health who believe that certain environmental factors can trigger the onset of symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. For example, when individuals are subjected to environments that are ripe with stress and chaos are vulnerable to developing symptoms of OCD that are ritualistic in nature because it allows them to have something that they can feel a sense of control over. Similarly, people who have been subjected to abuse and/or neglect may be more susceptible to experiencing the onset of symptoms of OCD as they search for something that they can have control over. Unfortunately, however, this false sense of control can rapidly spiral into the development of rituals and obsessions that the individuals ultimately have no control over.

Risk Factors:

  • Suffering from another type of mental health condition
  • Family history of OCD, anxiety disorders, or other mental health conditions
  • Familial or relationship discord
  • Suffering from abuse and/or neglect
  • Experiencing chronically high levels of stress
  • Lacking a strong support network
  • Facing extreme life changes over which one has no control
  • Experiencing the death of a loved one

Signs and Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The symptoms that are displayed by individuals who are suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder are broken down into two distinct categories. As implied by the name of this disorder, these two categories consist of obsessive symptoms and compulsive symptoms. Some individuals will experience both types of symptoms in similar frequency, while some will suffer from obsessive symptoms more prominently and others will suffer from compulsive symptoms more prominently. Examples of both types are provided in the following:

Obsessive symptoms: These symptoms are intrusive in nature, can be all-consuming, and are highly unwanted. Obsessions can include repetitive and persistent thoughts, images, or urges. The presence of such obsessions can decrease a person’s ability to focus on anything other than the obsession itself. Despite wanting to be rid of these obsessions, sufferers of OCD find that they are incapable of erasing them from their minds, leading to the onset of marked anxiety and distress. Various examples of obsessive symptoms may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Suffering from pervasive presence of undesirable and intrusive thoughts
  • Experiencing disturbing thoughts that are graphic in nature
  • Feeling overly worried about, or unnecessarily responsible for, the welfare of others
  • Seeing inappropriate, distasteful, and unwanted images in one’s mind that are religious and/or sexual in nature
  • Suffering from irrational and excessive concerns regarding the symmetry, order, and arrangement of certain things
  • Experiencing chronic worry about germs, dirt, or becoming contaminated in some way
  • Experiencing aggressive impulses – These impulses, however, are rarely acted upon by sufferers of OCD. Instead, they typically present in the form of aggressive images in one’s mind (e.g. visualizing inflicting serious harm onto someone else).

Compulsive symptoms: These symptoms are characterized by atypical behaviors that people feel compelled to perform, even when they do not want to. When the compulsion to act on such behaviors presents itself, sufferers of OCD feel incapable of avoiding partaking in them because, if they fail to do so, they will typically experience increasing levels of anxiety. This anxiety can become so pronounced that, for many individuals, it becomes debilitating. Examples of compulsive symptoms can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Eating foods in a certain pattern or order
  • Irrationally checking and re-checking to ensure that certain tasks have been completed (e.g. repeatedly checking to make sure doors are locked, the oven has been turned off, etc.)
  • Experiencing an inability to cease repeating a name, phrase, or an activity because, if such repetitions are not adhered to, the sufferer will experience extreme anxiety (e.g. turning a light switch on and off a certain amount of times before being able to leave a room)
  • Repeatedly touching certain objects (e.g. feeling compelled to touch a door knob multiple times before opening a door)
  • Consistently rearranging things
  • Struggling to throw away useless items (also known as hoarding)
  • Engaging in certain behaviors chronically and excessively (e.g. repeatedly bathing, repeatedly washing one’s hands, cleaning excessively)

Effects of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

When individuals are denied treatment for the symptoms of OCD, they are vulnerable to experiencing a number of long-term detrimental effects. Furthermore, when appropriate treatment is not received, existing symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder are likely to continue to intensify, leading to more disturbances within a person’s life. Examples of various effects that may arise as a result of untreated OCD may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Inability to meet job expectations / occupational failure / chronic unemployment
  • Significantly impaired interpersonal relationships
  • Social isolation
  • Alienation of family members
  • Onset of, or prolonged engagement in, self-injurious behaviors
  • Developing an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

The presence of obsessive-compulsive disorder commonly occurs alongside other types of mental health conditions. Disorders that are frequently cited as co-occurring with OCD include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobia
  • Eating disorders
  • Tic disorder
  • Substance use disorders

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