OCD can be difficult to identify. If you’re concerned you or a loved one is struggling with OCD, this page outlines the warning signs, symptoms, and causes of this disorder.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder with very distinct signs and symptoms. A person suffering with OCD symptom has persistent thoughts and fears (obsessions) associated with repetitive behaviors (compulsions), which typically result in a short-lived relief of anxiety.
Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder often center on themes, such as a fear of getting contaminated by germs, or an over focus on order. Other behaviors that may be signs of OCD compulsions may include:
- hand washing until the skin becomes raw
- avoidance of situations that can trigger obsessions, such as shaking hands
- checking doors repeatedly to make sure they’re locked
- checking the stove repeatedly to make sure it’s off
- counting in certain patterns
- making sure canned goods all face the same way
- picking at the skin resulting in skin lesions
- hair pulling resulting in hair loss or bald spots
Beneath the visible signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder lie complex emotions and obsessions such as:
- fear of being contaminated by shaking hands or by touching objects others have touched
- doubts about having locked the door or turned off the stove
- thoughts of hurting someone in a traffic accident
- intense distress when objects aren’t orderly or facing the right way
- images of hurting a child or children
- impulses to shout obscenities in inappropriate situations
- replaying pornographic images mentally
What are the Effects of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can quickly become all-consuming, and even physically disabling. A person may be able to do little else but spend time on the obsessions and compulsions. OCD sufferers often have a very poor quality of life because the condition rules most of their day, and the signs and symptoms are so troubling to friends and family.
With obsessive-compulsive disorder, the person may realize that the obsessions aren’t reasonable, and may try to ignore them or stop them. Unfortunately this effort tends to only increase the person’s distress and anxiety. Ultimately, the person feels driven to perform compulsive acts in an effort to ease her distress. Despite her efforts, the distressing symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder keep coming back. This leads to a vicious cycle of ritualistic behavior that is characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also shows similarities to the cycles seen in persons with bulimia nervosa, who respond to body image distortion with bulimic behaviors of binging and purging.
OCD compulsions can begin in one area of a person’s life and spread to others, with the same behavior patterns:
- Washing and cleaning
- Demanding reassurances
- Performing the same action repeatedly
What are the Causes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
The cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder isn’t fully understood. Main theories include both physiological factors and environmental factors. Some evidence shows that OCD may be a result of changes in the body’s natural chemistry or brain functions. Some evidence also shows that OCD may have a genetic component, but specific genes have yet to be identified. An insufficient level of serotonin, one of the brain’s chemical messengers that also helps regulate mood, may contribute to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
What Should Parents or Friends Say if They are Concerned?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious medical condition that requires coordinated, holistic treatment from an experienced psychiatrist. Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center is a leader in treating women and adolescent girls for OCD, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and eating disorders, and other co-occurring conditions. Read more about our OCD treatment program.