Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that causes repeated unwanted thoughts or sensations (obsessions) or the urge to do something over and over again (compulsions). Some people can have both obsessions and compulsions.

OCD isn’t about habits like biting your nails or thinking negative thoughts. An obsessive thought might be that certain numbers or colors are “good” or “bad.” A compulsive habit might be to wash your hands seven times after touching something that could be dirty. Although you may not want to think or do these things, you feel powerless to stop.

Everyone has habits or thoughts that repeat sometimes. People with OCD have thoughts or actions that:

  • Take up at least an hour a day
  • Are beyond your control
  • Aren’t enjoyable
  • Interfere with work, your social life, or another part of life


Scientists don’t understand exactly what causes OCD. Certain factors or events may increase a person’s chances of developing the condition, or cause an episode of OCD:

  • Changes in living situation, such as moving, getting married or divorced, or starting a new school or job.
  • Death of a loved one or other emotional trauma.
  • History of abuse.
  • Illness (if you get the flu, for example, you may start a cycle of obsessing about germs and washing compulsively).
  • Low levels of serotonin, a natural substance in the brain that maintains mental balance.
  • Over activity in areas of the brain.
  • Problems at work or school.
  • Problems with an important relationship.


  • If you have OCD, you'll usually experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
  • An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease.
  • A compulsion is a repetitive behavior or mental act that you feel you need to do to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought.

For example, someone with an obsessive fear of being burgled may feel they need to check all the windows and doors are locked several times before they can leave their house.

Women can sometimes have OCD during pregnancy or after their baby is born. Obsessions may include worrying about harming the baby or not sterilizing feeding bottles properly. Compulsions could be things such as repeatedly checking the baby is breathing.


OCD is diagnosed during a physical and psychiatric exam when obsessions and compulsions:     

  • Take up at least one hour each day
  • Are distressing
  • Interfere with daily life

Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

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