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What is OCD?

Michael Pollick
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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OCD is short for obsessive compulsive disorder, a psychological condition primarily associated with anxiety and stress. Sufferers often find themselves involuntarily performing ritualistic acts in reaction to disturbing or invasive thoughts. The condition affects at least 2 or 3% of the population, although the number of undiagnosed cases could be significantly higher. Many people with OCD are reluctant to seek professional help for their behavior.

In order to understand OCD, it may help to examine each aspect of the disorder separately. The O represents an obsessive thought process, characterized by recurring and often distressing mental images or ideas. Obsession is the mental component of the condition, and the least visible sign to outsiders. These disturbing images continue to play out in a loop until the sufferer feels an overwhelming need to take action. In one form, called Pure O OCD, the sufferer understands that acting on the obsessive thought would be wrong, and the condition remains in the O stage indefinitely.

Once the stress of the obsessive thought becomes too great, a sufferer feels compelled to take action to relieve the pain. This is the C, or compulsive, element. The compulsion often manifests itself in a ritualistic or repetitive act. If a patient forms obsessive thoughts about blood on his hands, for example, the associated compulsive act may be repetitive hand-washing. Others might obsess over an unlocked car door, leading them to check their vehicles at regular intervals.

A compulsive act cannot readily be controlled by a true OCD sufferer. The imagined blood must be washed off his hands before his life can return to normal. This can lead to hours and hours of irrational behavior.

The D in OCD represents a known psychological disorder, and in the case of obsessive compulsive disorder, the cause remains elusive. Some believe that the obsessive thought loop is caused by a disconnect between thought and action nerve centers. A normal person may think, "I must lock my car," and proceed to perform the complex locking procedure. A person with OCD might think the same thing and promptly not be able to accurately remember whether or not the action has actually taken place. Only when the locking action has been performed enough times will the sufferer make the connection and not experience anxiety.

Treatment for OCD may include both behavioral and cognitive therapies. These treatments may also include anti-anxiety medications, but many clinical psychologists prefer to use behavioral modification alone whenever possible. Therapists may start by creating a safe environment in which the patient can experience the mildest form of "reality shock" possible.

If the sufferer obsesses over sanitation, for example, the therapist may introduce an object with a small speck of dirt visible. This may trigger an obsessive-compulsive reaction at first, but eventually the patient should learn to control his or her irrational thoughts because the dirty object does not match the level of anxiety first created in the sufferer's mind.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon259500 — On Apr 06, 2012

I am not sure if I have this problem or not. The thing is, I am not obsessed, but when I do something, I do it so much. For example, I used to drink, and during that time, I drank every day, but when I stopped it, I hated drinking completely.

The same applies when I love someone, I love them so much, not I hate everybody. I wish I were dead, even though I don't think of committing suicide.

By anon245495 — On Feb 05, 2012

I have exactly the same thoughts and I wonder all the time if I will ever do these horrible acts because for a while, I think of doing them and later I worry about it.

I honestly don't know if I've done these horrible things. It is so anxiety-provoking. I feel better that someone else has these issues too.

By anon231762 — On Nov 27, 2011

I am 26 and suffer from thoughts that my periods will stop because I am taking the medicine fluoxetine and xenical for ocd and weight reduction. I know this may be an illusion but this thought keeps bothering me. Any help please?

By anon162423 — On Mar 23, 2011

i think i have OCD. Everything has to be perfect for me, and lately i have been having little anger management breakouts at my mom if she re-organizes anything. it seems like no one else can help? what do i do? it's driving me crazy!

By anon160511 — On Mar 16, 2011

Ever since I was a kid I always used to have this blanket. One day, I can't remember when or why, I started rubbing the tag (it was made of material). It eventually became soft and I ran to it every day when something bad had happened or if I was under lots of stress. The tag fell off 2 years ago and I lost it. During that time I went 'insane' (not literally).

I found myself not knowing how to cope with certain things and soon found a substitute for the tag. I have this soft toy, a cat, it's fairly soft and fluffy. I began rubbing its ear and now it's soft and I can't stop rubbing it. My parents joke about when I get married the cat will be part of the marriage, and well, it kind of just gets to me (stupid I know). So, I did some research and came up with OCD. Now, I don't know whether or not this is OCD, or why I even truly do this. What do I do?

By anon145280 — On Jan 22, 2011

I too have horrible obsessive thoughts. And they can be so convincing! I agree with anon9178.

By leyla2009 — On Jun 19, 2010

@anon4034. yes i have ocd and i get horrible thoughts about harming people! i then feel really bad. the battle gets so hard as it is every day and i have a young child who i love with all my heart. i get scared of everything: scared that I'm going to end up in a mental unit or jail. I'm going for cbt soon. how long have you had it and do you take meds?

By anon71598 — On Mar 19, 2010

The root cause of OCD is fear. And "perfect love casts out fear".

By anon67397 — On Feb 24, 2010

I have OCD and have found that sharing my emotions with a therapist helps me get to the root feelings behind my obsessions. It is by far not a cure for OCD, but it helps. I also use cognitive behavior therapy as my OCD is mixed in with other anxiety disorders.

By anon50375 — On Oct 28, 2009

Yes that's definitely an OCD symptom. Harming thoughts are very common, you are not alone, one of millions. The best thing to do is not be afraid of the thought (hard to do, I know), but also ignore the thought and recognize the stress that is undoubtedly the cause. That will help a lot. CBT is a great tool to use though. It's a form of therapy where you learn to get past it.

By anon21969 — On Nov 25, 2008

In just read the post by Anon4621 and was comforted to know that there is someone else who has this same reoccurring thought and fear. Sometimes it is overwhelming. I feel extremely guilty like I did something horrible to someone and just can't remember it. Sometimes there are small bits and pieces to the thought that make no sense. It scares me to no end. I'm fearful that one day someone will show up and tell me that my thoughts are true and I did do something horrible and my beautiful life will be shattered. Is there anyone else who has these thoughts?

By anon9178 — On Mar 01, 2008

I have OCD, to cure it, I had to address the root cause of OCD, namely anxiety.

There are no quick fixes or magic pills for this, you must retrain yourself in how you react to things that cause you anxiety.

The Bible says do not react anxiously about anything. Matthew 6: 25-34. I followed God's advice and it worked!

To overcome anxiety, practice acceptance of your situation causing you anxiety. Practice being calm in situations that make you nervous. Always react calmly, never anxiously. This is called taking control of your emotions. Even if this feels uncomfortable you are training yourself to react calmly, not nervously. You will actually feel more in control. Then calmly use your God given thinking ability to think of creative ways to make things run smoother in your life. Even if this too feels uncomfortable. As things improve little by little your anxiety will lessen and over time you will feel more confident about your ability to take control of yourself and your life through your new abilities. You will begin to notice improvements after a few weeks. You will feel better about how you are handling things. This training will settle in and become the new you. OCD symptoms including intrusive thoughts will subside dramatically.

You can also greatly benefit yourself by practicing the fruitage of the spirit: Galatians 5:22

Read daily God's (Jehovah's) instruction manual for us...the Bible, because man was never created with the ablility to direct his own steps successfully independent of God. That is why we all fail and have problems of every sort in our lives. Jeremiah 10:23.

By sillyme — On Dec 14, 2007

i have been married for 30 years to a man who has lived for 40 years with this problem: i thought he was cheating and still may be but he always needs someone to witness everything he does: maybe that is where i thought he was cheating because it matters not to him who can verify his actions: as his wife i soon realized that it was not the woman but the fear of being accused of a disruptive thought he had and could not be sure if he did it or not: he actually looks for someone to watch him : i drove him to work for 25 years and finally decided he should start facing his fears: i tell him do not look back because of a thought you know you worry about because if you worry it shows you could not do the thought: i don't really know how to help him but it is getting stressful to me and our 4 children who notice his problem: they tell him get help but he denies he has a problem: what to do?

By anon4621 — On Oct 25, 2007

I too have this problem. I have weird thoughts that i may be a killer and somehow have forgotten about the acts. I'm so scared. I love my life and my family. I have a fear the police will take me away but I try to tell me self how dillusioned this notion is but I can't take the fear away.

By anon4034 — On Sep 29, 2007

I have OCD, lately i've gotten thoughts that i'm acting bad. For example if i talk to someone I keep having intrusive thoughts that ill hurt them or that im secretly a killer or something. I don't want to do that and these thoughts make me go into a breakdown. I get the thoughts a lot. If having the thought and feeling of yourself being "bad" is this a common OCD symptom?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
Learn more
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