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Understanding obsessive-compulsive disorder

This anxiety disorder causes obsessive, unwanted thoughts paired with rituals that people create to combat the thoughts.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have recurrent, unwanted thoughts, impulses or fears. They may worry that they're unclean, that they've left an appliance on, or that their families could be hurt or killed at any time.

To combat these obsessions, people with OCD create rituals. The person may begin washing each time he or she feels unclean, check that the appliance is turned off, or believe he or she must say a sister's name over and over to keep her safe.

Unfortunately, these rituals provide only temporary relief, driving the person to perform them over and over. In the most severe cases, the rituals become so consuming that the person has no time for a normal life. Each minute is spent satisfying the compulsion.

Most people with OCD know their thoughts and actions are inappropriate, but they can't stop the behaviors. This may cause shame and anxiety. Often, they attempt to ignore or suppress those troubling behaviors by substituting other thoughts or actions, according to the American Psychiatric Association.


Although no one knows for sure what causes this disorder, it may have a neurobiological cause. Researchers have determined that several parts of the brain are associated with fear and anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. OCD sometimes runs in families.


Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been effective in treating this disorder in some people. If one drug isn't effective, another may work better.

Some people with OCD benefit from a therapy called exposure and response prevention, in which the person is exposed to whatever triggers the obsessive fears and is taught coping techniques to help avoid performing the rituals.

With proper treatment and family support, people with OCD can usually manage their symptoms.

Reviewed 4/17/2022

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This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.