Obsessive–compulsive Disorder

Uncontrollable thoughts that are often accompanied by irresistible urges to carry out acts or rituals to relieve anxiety

  • Usually develops in adolescence
  • Sometimes runs in families
  • Stress is a risk factor
  • Gender is not a significant factor

A person with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) feels dominated by unwanted thoughts that enter the mind repeatedly. Obsessive thoughts are frequently accompanied by a form of compulsive ritual, in which a behaviour or action, such as checking that keys are still in a pocket, is repeated again and again. The affected person does not want to perform these actions but feels driven to do so to relieve the associated anxiety. Thoughts may be concerns about hygiene, personal safety, or security of possessions. Alternatively, there may be violent and obscene thoughts that are completely out of character. Examples of common compulsions include handwashing, checking that windows and doors are locked, and arranging objects on a desk in precise patterns. Carrying out the ritual brings short-lived relief, but, in severe cases, the ritual is performed hundreds of times a day and interferes with work and social life.

About 1 in 100 people in the UK has obsessive–compulsive disorder, which sometimes runs in families. Stressful life events may trigger the condition.

Effects of compulsive handwashing

Repeated handwashing by a person with obsessive–compulsive disorder has made the skin of the hands raw and chapped.

What are the symptoms?

An obsession or compulsion can focus on any object, event, or idea. The most common symptoms include:

  • Intrusive, senseless thoughts or mental images.

  • Repeated attempts to resist thoughts.

  • Repetitive behaviour in the attempt to relieve anxiety.

The person may be aware that the behaviour is irrational and be distressed by it but cannot control these symptoms.

What might be done?

Your doctor will probably be able to diagnose obsessive–compulsive disorder from your symptoms. To help reduce the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may suggest treatment with a form of psychotherapy, such as cognitive–behavioural therapy. He or she may prescribe an antidepressant drug because drugs combined with psychotherapy usually offer the best chance of success. Initially, therapy may make your anxiety, thoughts, and compulsion to perform rituals worse, but, given time, it may help you to feel more in control of your thoughts as well as your compulsive urges.

As part of your treatment, you may want to involve a family member or friend to encourage you. You should also try to identify stress factors that may contribute to your condition and seek ways to reduce them. Many people find joining a self-help group is beneficial.

More than 7 in 10 people begin to improve within a year of starting treatment. Other people have a long-term illness that fluctuates in severity.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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