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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Adults

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have obsessions, compulsions or both. “Obsessions are thoughts, mental pictures, or impulses that are upsetting but that keep coming back. “Compulsions” are actions that people feel they have to perform to keep them from feeling anxious to prevent something bad from happening. Most people with OCD suffer from both obsessions and compulsions.

Common obsessions include:

  • Fears of getting a disease, such as AIDS or cancer.
  • Fears of touching poisons, such as pesticides.
  • Fears of hurting or killing someone, often a loved one.
  • Fears of forgetting to do something, such as turn off a stove or lock a door.
  • Fears of doing something embarrassing or immoral, such as shouting obscenities.

Compulsions are also called “rituals”. Common compulsions include the following:

  • Excessive washing or cleaning, such as washing one’s hands many times a day.
  • Checking, such as looking at a stove repeatedly to make sure it is off.
  • Repeating actions, such as always turning a light switch on and off 16 times.
  • Hoarding or saving things, such as keeping old newspapers or scraps of paper.
  • Putting objects in a set pattern, such as making sure everything in a room is symmetrical.

Most people with OCD know that their fears are not completely realistic. They also feel that their compulsions do not make sense. However, they find themselves unable to stop. OCD is a common problem. During any 6 month period, over 4 million people in the United States suffer from OCD. One person in every 40 will have OCD at some point during his or her life.

OCD can cause serious problems. People with OCD often spend hours a day doing rituals. This makes it hard to work or take care of the family. Many people with OCD often avoid places or situations that make them anxious. Some become homebound. Often they have family members help them perform their rituals.

What Are the Causes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

The exact causes of OCD are not known. Genes play a role. Family members of people with OCD often have OCD and other anxiety problems. However, genes alone do not explain OCD; learning and life stress also appear to contribute to the disorder.

How Does Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Develop?

Studies show that 90% of people have thoughts similar to those that trouble people with OCD. However, people with OCD appear to be more upset by these thoughts than other people are. Often the thoughts that worry people with OCD go against their beliefs and values-for example, a very religious man fears that he will commit blasphemy, or a loving mother fears harming her child.

Because people who develop OCD are upset by these thoughts, they try to avoid them. Often they try to force themselves to stop thinking the thoughts. The problem is that the more you try not to think about something, the more you end up thinking about it. You can try this yourself: Try not to think about a pink elephant for the next 60 seconds. The chances are good that the first thing that comes to your mind will be just what you are trying to avoid thinking about- a pink elephant.

When people find that they cannot avoid upsetting thoughts, they often turn to other ways to feel less anxious. They may begin to perform some action, such as washing a lot or saying a silent prayer. This usually relieves their anxiety. The problem is that the relief is only temporary. Soon they must perform the action more often in order to feel better. Before long, the action has become a compulsion.

What Is Expected of You as a Patient?

It is common to feel anxious at the beginning of therapy and to have doubts whether you can be helped. All that is required is that you be willing to give therapy a try. Your therapist will teach you new ways of dealing with your anxiety and will help you begin to face things you fear. You will be asked to practice these new skills between sessions. If you work on the exercises your therapist gives you and complete the treatment, your chances for feeling better are excellent.


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