Skip to main content

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

By April 12, 2018November 19th, 2020Dr. Jenny Yip, OCD

With the catchphrase “I have OCD” ever so prevalent amongst teens and adults alike in our culture, the lack of knowledge surrounding the disease by these individuals is shocking. It’s almost as if those flaunting their OCD are proud of their superpower organizational skills or use it as an excuse for their regular hand sanitizer usage. However, those who actually suffer from the debilitating disease often wish they were more normal and not so “OCD”, as it were. So, what are the characteristics of OCD as defined by the DSM-5, and how does one get diagnosed?
Signs and Symptoms of OCD
OCD is marked by the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurring or unrelenting thoughts or urges. Common examples would include fear of contamination from everyday objects, fear of harm to self or others, and/or wanting to harm self or others. They are involuntary and cause distress or anxiety in most individuals.
Compulsions can occur on their own or as a result of obsessions. Compulsions are ritualistic repetitive behaviors or mental acts the individual feels must be completed in a rigid manner. A few common examples of compulsions are checking a lock multiple times, counting steps, or repeating words silently over and over. Compulsions are not intrinsically pleasurable to the individual, although they may find momentary relief from their anxiety in performing these compulsions. Furthermore, the compulsions are either excessive or unrealistically connected to a perceived feared event. Some examples include excessively washing hands even if they are already clean or checking the lock on the front door 20 times in fear that the family will die if they don’t.
The general population may experience some of these symptoms from time to time, or during periods of extreme stress or trauma. However, another factor that differentiates OCD from occasional obsessions or compulsions is the time-consuming nature of the OCD symptoms. These must interfere with one’s life for more than one hour per day or have a significant impact on daily living in order to be considered OCD.  
Only a licensed physician can formally diagnose someone with OCD. They will assess the person to see if they fit the criteria for having OCD. The physician will also likely rule out other anxiety or trauma disorders that could be contributing to the OCD symptoms. For instance, if someone is only obsessing about their fear of spiders, they could have a phobia rather than OCD. Sometimes people with OCD can display other negative behaviors, such as anorexia, bulimia, hoarding, skin picking, hair pulling, or substance abuse, which can make diagnosis complicated. People with OCD have higher chances of displaying these behaviors than the general public, but these behaviors don’t necessarily point to OCD as the root cause.
If the OCD is reducing the quality of one’s social or personal life, the individual may want to seek help to curb the obsessive and/or compulsive hindrances. Even if symptoms are mild, some may seek treatment to prevent the worsening of the disease. In mild to moderate cases, simple cognitive behavioral treatment or exposure therapy can help one overcome the urges. In more severe cases, medication may be prescribed, or deep brain stimulation practiced, in order to help the individual.