Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) affects 2.2 million people in the United States, which accounts for about 1 percent of the population. Though it’s not widespread like anxiety or depression, it’s not uncommon. It’s a complex disorder that can be debilitating when severe.
However, OCD is treatable with therapies that can be tailored to one’s specific needs. But how do you know if you have OCD, or if you’re at risk? Learn more about this disorder, who it affects, and how to tell if you have it.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by a few key symptoms. The first is obsessive thoughts. Obsession is identified by thoughts that cannot be moved on from or ignored. They take up the majority of one’s focus when they occur.
For example, a person with OCD might feel like they failed to fully clean their hands after washing. The nagging thought that their hands are still dirty may bother them regardless of how thoroughly they washed their hands in the first place. These obsessive thoughts can be out of their control and might prevent them from focusing on other tasks.
The compulsive aspect of OCD is the actions one takes to satisfy the obsessive thoughts. If you have the obsessive thought that your hands aren’t clean, no matter how well you washed them, you may wash them over and over to try to satisfy your obsession. Compulsions are difficult to resist, and there is a deep nagging feeling that you have to do them.
OCD is often difficult to rationalize away. People who might be experiencing obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions may know that they don’t need to wash their hands multiple times, but if they don’t, the anxiety and stress will continue to bother them.
It’s also common for people with OCD to have rituals or particular ways of performing tasks so as to satisfy obsessive thoughts. An aversion to germs is also common, and many people with OCD are afraid of being contaminated by germs or contaminating other people with germs. Other common signs and symptoms can include:
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) says that people with OCD have obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions that last for at least an hour and take up all of the person’s time in that hour. It also has to cause significant distress and interfere with a person’s normal routine for it to be diagnosed as OCD.
Mental health disorders are often poorly understood. Issues like OCD are complex, and no two people with the disorder are completely alike. However, research has looked at some of the ways OCD can affect the brain and found potential links to certain parts of the brain and the disorder. Research has found that there are three parts of the brain that may be related to OCD symptoms: the orbital cortex, cingulate gyrus, and caudate nucleus.
The orbital cortex is the part of the brain that’s designed to let you know when you’ve completed a task correctly or incorrectly. Monkey studies have shown that this part of the brain lights up when a monkey is rewarded (with juice) for completing a task, but it’s activated more intensely and for longer when a monkey is given a punishment (saltwater) for completing a task incorrectly.
In OCD, this part of the brain is overactive, which may account for the obsessive thoughts that something like washing your hands has been done incorrectly.
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The cingulate gyrus is another overactive part of the brain in people with OCD, and its job is to regulate motivation and behavioral responses. It’s also tied to learning and reward. When the orbital cortex tells you that you did something incorrectly, the cingulate gyrus causes you to feel anxious to encourage you to fix the problem.
However, sometimes there is no problem, or there’s nothing you can do about it. In those cases, the caudate nucleus helps you to switch gears and move on. However, the caudate nucleus is underactive in people with OCD, while the other two parts of the brain are overactive. That may explain why a person with OCD has obsessive thoughts and compulsions that are challenging to overcome.
Anyone can develop OCD. It’s generally not confined to race, sex, or age. However, OCD prevalence statistics slightly favor women in their 20s. Still, significant numbers of men and older people can have the disorder. A few specific risk factors might trigger or cause OCD, including:
If you have signs and symptoms of OCD, it’s important to learn more about your treatment options as soon as possible. OCD is a complex but treatable problem. The condition can be treated with psychotherapy options like cognitive-behavioral therapy or with pharmacological options like antidepressants. Take steps toward better mental health by learning more about OCD and how it can be treated today.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
Mayo Clinic. (2016, September 17). Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20354432
National Institute of Mental Health. (2017, November). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd.shtml
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016, January). Table 3.13, DSM-IV to DSM-5 Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Comparison – Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health – NCBI Bookshelf. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t13/
Tsujimoto, S., Genovesio, A., & Wise, S. P. (2009, February 25). Monkey Orbitofrontal Cortex Encodes Response Choices Near Feedback Time. Retrieved from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/29/8/2569