Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder | Overview

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What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an illness that causes people to have unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and to repeat certain behaviors (compulsions) over and over again. We all have habits and routines in our daily lives, such as brushing our teeth before bed. However, for people with OCD, patterns of behavior get in the way of their daily lives.

Most people with OCD know that their obsessions and compulsions make no sense, but they can't ignore or stop them.

What are obsessions?

Obsessions are ideas, images and impulses that run through the person's mind over and over again. A person with OCD doesn't want to have these thoughts and finds them disturbing, but he or she can't control them. Sometimes these thoughts come just once in a while and are only mildly annoying. Other times, a person who has OCD will have obsessive thoughts all the time.

What are compulsions?

Obsessive thoughts make people who have OCD feel nervous and afraid. They try to get rid of these feelings by performing certain behaviors according to "rules" that they make up for themselves. These behaviors are called compulsions. (Compulsive behaviors are sometimes also called rituals.) For example, a person who has OCD may have obsessive thoughts about germs. Because of these thoughts, the person may wash his or her hands repeatedly. Performing these behaviors usually only makes the nervous feelings go away for a short time. When the fear and nervousness return, the person who has OCD repeats the routine all over again.

How common is OCD?

For many years, OCD was thought to be rare. Some recent studies show that as many as 3 million Americans ages 18 to 54 may have OCD at any one time. This is about 2.3% of the people in this age group. OCD affects men and women equally.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 04/14
Created: 04/94

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