Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment.

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Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment.

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is one of the more misunderstood diagnoses and that misunderstanding often leads to fear or aversion around it. The behaviors of OCD are often dramatized in media as the obsessive cleaning or locking doors. It has also become part of the colloquial vernacular where people say that they are “OCD” about something when they mean that they are very particular about thing. 

So, why is it so crucial to talk about OCD openly and without reservation? The answer is simple: stigma. Stigma can be one of the biggest roadblocks to seeking help and understanding. By shedding light on OCD and discussing it openly, we chip away at that stigma, making it easier for individuals to support themselves and/or reach out for the support they need.

In this blog post, we’ll explore Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the symptoms it presents, its potential causes, how it’s diagnosed, and the various treatment options available. We’ll empower you with knowledge, understanding, and practical strategies to navigate the challenges that OCD presents. Our aim is to provide an empathic, educational, and empowering guide to OCD.

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be a bit like unraveling a puzzle. But fear not, because we’re here to break it down into digestible, relatable terms.

Defining OCD 

At its core, OCD is like a persistent, unwanted guest in your mind. It’s characterized by two main components: obsessions and compulsions. Now, let’s explore these elements and see how they play out in everyday life.

Obsessions vs. Compulsions: Think of obsessions as those intrusive thoughts that pop up uninvited. They’re like that annoying jingle stuck in your head, only much more distressing. These thoughts can range from irrational fears of contamination to doubts about safety or order.

Compulsions, on the other hand, are the behaviors that emerge as an attempt to neutralize the anxiety triggered by those pesky obsessions. They’re like a reflex action that your brain believes will alleviate the distress. For example, if you obsess about germs, you might compulsively wash your hands repeatedly, believing it will keep you safe.

Practical Examples: Let’s put this into real-life scenarios. Imagine you’re leaving your house, and suddenly, you’re hit with the fear that you didn’t lock the door. This nagging thought becomes an obsession—it won’t leave you alone. So, you go back, check the door, lock it again, and recheck it multiple times. That’s the compulsion, your brain’s way of trying to put the obsession to rest.

Or, picture yourself in a meeting, and you have this intrusive thought that you might blurt out something inappropriate. To counter this fear, you engage in a mental ritual, repeatedly going over what you’ll say in your head. That’s another form of compulsion, an attempt to quell the obsession’s anxiety.

OCD isn’t just about quirks or habits; it’s a complex interplay of thoughts and behaviors driven by fear and anxiety. In the next section, we’ll dive deeper into the symptoms and explore how these obsessions and compulsions can significantly impact daily life.

Symptoms and Causes of OCD

Recognizing OCD Symptoms

When it comes to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), understanding the symptoms is like deciphering a puzzle. 

Common Symptoms of OCD:

  1. Intrusive Thoughts: Imagine a broken record that keeps playing the same tune, except it’s not a catchy song – it’s unwanted and distressing thoughts. These thoughts, like an unwanted guest, keep showing up uninvited.

  2. Excessive Hand Washing: Picture this: you wash your hands so many times that you feel like you’re scrubbing in for surgery. OCD can manifest in a relentless need for cleanliness, which, ironically, can become quite messy in itself.

  3. Checking Compulsions: Think of OCD as a relentless fact-checker. You might find yourself repeatedly checking if the door is locked, the stove is off, or if you’ve turned off the lights, even though you know you have.

  4. Counting and Arranging: It’s like trying to solve a never-ending Sudoku puzzle. Counting or arranging objects meticulously can be another symptom of OCD, where order becomes an obsession.

  5. Fear of Contamination: Imagine that touching a doorknob feels like a potential health hazard. Fear of contamination can be an overpowering aspect of OCD, leading to behaviors like avoiding public spaces or excessive use of sanitizers.

Living with OCD can be like having a mischievous but persistent roommate in your head who keeps making noise at odd hours. Imagine trying to focus on a movie while they’re yelling in the background about something you’ve already checked a hundred times. Imagine that roommate getting louder, more demanding, and maybe even threatening tragedy if they aren’t responded to.

In essence, OCD symptoms are like stubborn weeds that sprout in the garden of your mind. They demand constant attention, and the more you try to ignore them, the stronger they seem to grow.

But what causes this mental garden to become overrun with these troublesome weeds? That’s where we delve into the causes of OCD.

Exploring the Causes

The causes of OCD are like a complex recipe with various ingredients. Let’s break it down into simpler terms.

Potential Causes of OCD:

  1. Genetic Factors: Think of genetics as the family recipe passed down through generations. If you have close relatives with OCD, you might be more predisposed to it. It’s like inheriting the tendency to be a meticulous chef from your grandma.

  2. Brain Chemistry: OCD might arise from an imbalance in neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which can affect mood and behavior. It’s like the chef in your brain adding too much of one spice and not enough of another.

  3. Environmental Factors: Just as the ingredients in a dish can change its flavor, life experiences can contribute to OCD. Stress, trauma, or a major life change can sometimes trigger or exacerbate OCD symptoms. It’s like the recipe going awry due to unexpected kitchen mishaps.

  4. Cognitive Factors: Your thought process is like the chef’s creative approach to cooking. In OCD, distorted thinking patterns play a role. People with OCD may interpret intrusive thoughts as significant threats, which fuels their compulsive behaviors. It’s like believing that a slightly burnt dish is a culinary disaster and defines your cooking skills, as a whole.

In simple terms, OCD is not a result of a single cause; it’s more like a complex interplay of several factors. Genetics, brain chemistry, life experiences, and thought patterns all play a role in creating this unique mental recipe.

By understanding these symptoms and causes in relatable terms, we’re taking a step towards demystifying OCD. Remember, knowledge is a powerful tool in this journey, and you’re not alone in deciphering the puzzle of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In the next section, we’ll explore how OCD is diagnosed, providing a roadmap for those seeking help.

Diagnosis and Tests

Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) doesn’t just stop at recognizing its symptoms and potential causes. The next crucial step is diagnosis and assessment. So, let’s dive into how mental health professionals diagnose OCD, what criteria they use, and why seeking professional help is vital.

How is OCD Diagnosed?

Diagnosing OCD can be challenging, given the multitude of factors involved. Mental health professionals use several approaches in an effort to see the full picture to find the best treatment approach. Here’s how they go about it:

  1. Clinical Evaluation: A mental health professional will talk to you about your experiences to get a better sense of your symptoms by looking at your feelings, behaviors, and thoughts. They’ll ask questions to understand more about your life to get more context around the nature and severity of your OCD. It is also important to get a sense of the strengths and coping skills that a person has to work with. We use our strengths to grow.

  2. Diagnostic Criteria: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides the list of symptoms that need to be met to diagnose OCD. The list of symptoms for diagnosis has been refined through decades of research. The DSM continues to evolve as we learn more through empirical research.

  3. Assessment Tools: Just as a detective uses forensic tools, mental health professionals may employ assessment scales and questionnaires to assess the severity of your symptoms. These tools provide valuable insights into your experiences.

Diagnostic Criteria for OCD:

To be diagnosed with OCD, certain criteria must be met:

  • Presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both.
  • The obsessions or compulsions are time-consuming and cause significant distress.  
  • They significantly interfere with daily functioning, work, or relationships.

If you suspect you have OCD or have been struggling with intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors, seeking professional help is a crucial step. A qualified mental health professional can give you the tools you need to manage the obsessions and compulsions. 

Why is professional help so important?

  • Accurate Diagnosis: Mental health professionals are trained to distinguish OCD from other conditions with similar symptoms. An accurate diagnosis is the first step towards effective treatment. You need to know what you are looking at in order to do something about it.

  • Tailored Treatment: Mental health professionals customize treatment plans to suit your unique strengths and needs. This may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both.

  • Support and Guidance: Facing OCD can be a daunting journey, but you don’t have to do it alone. Professionals offer support, guidance, and strategies to help you manage your symptoms and regain control of your life. There are also groups led by professionals that can be very effective in managing symptoms.

  • Understanding and Empathy: Mental health professionals bring understanding and empathy to the table. They’re here to listen, validate your experiences, and work with you on your mental health journey.

So, if you suspect that OCD might be a part of your life, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Remember, the sooner you start, the sooner you can start untangling the threads of OCD and working towards a healthier, more fulfilling life. In the next section, we’ll explore the various treatment options available for OCD. There is a way to manage the symptoms and live a fulfilling life.

Treatment for OCD

Therapeutic Approaches

Now that we’ve explored the maze of OCD symptoms and causes, let’s shine a light on the path towards effective treatment.

Various Therapies for OCD:

  1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT looks at your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to understand your experience. Then CBT offers skills using education and practice that work the refine your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT can provide a structure to follow towards a more balanced mind. It’s a therapeutic approach that helps you identify and challenge those intrusive thoughts  or compulsions we discussed earlier. Picture it like a mental treasure hunt where you’re hunting down those unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with healthier ones.

  2. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP): This is commonly known as gradual exposure therapy. ERP involves gradually confronting your fears with support and education in safe and controlled ways. It can look like touching a “contaminated” object, and then resisting the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors by utilizing your coping skills. It’s like practicing bravery to rewire your associations to the OCD triggers, one small step at a time.

  3. Mindfulness and Acceptance-Based Therapies: These practices help build your awareness, teach you to observe your thoughts, and gain some space between your thoughts, feelings, and compulsions. This helps us get better at practicing which thoughts to follow and which thoughts to let go of. This is the foundation of these practices.

Effectiveness of Therapy:

Therapy isn’t about magically making OCD disappear overnight; it’s about equipping you with the tools and strategies to face those intrusive thoughts head-on. It’s a journey towards managing symptoms and regaining control over your life. It is important to have realistic goals that you work towards, step by step. 

Remember, just as a personal trainer helps you build physical strength, a therapist guides you to build mental and emotional resilience. You are the one doing the hard work, but a trained professional can help you take a more direct route. Therapy helps you gain the knowledge and skills to manage OCD. It also give you a guide in learning how to apply this knowledge in your life. Knowledge and practice…

The OCD symptoms may not disappear entirely, but they will likely arise less and you will know what to do when the symptoms do show up. 


While therapy is a powerful tool, sometimes it needs a little backup. That’s where medication comes into play.

Complementing Therapy with Medication:

The right medication can be a supportive sidekick to your therapy sessions. It can help reduce the intensity of OCD symptoms, making it easier for you to engage in therapeutic work.

Common medications prescribed for OCD include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). With these medications, about 40-60% of people notice a reduction of symptoms. The medication is designed to regulate serotonin levels in your brain. People have reported that it helps create more space between thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Which helps you to manage yourself more consciously, to avoid falling into old patterns, worries, and rituals. 

It is crucial to consult a psychiatrist for medication management. Medication effectiveness changes as life goes on and communicating with your psychiatrist or nurse practitioner helps you to stay on the right dosage. These professionals have expertise in tailoring your medication to your specific needs and monitoring its effects to make adjustments as needed, but they need information from us to make these decisions.

In summary, the treatment for OCD isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s a combination of therapies that empower you to face your fears, coupled with medication that can provide relief. Together, they form a comprehensive approach to managing OCD and regaining control over your life.

In the next section, we’ll explore practical coping strategies and self-help techniques that you can incorporate into your daily routine. These strategies are your tools for navigating the challenges of living with OCD.

Coping Strategies and Self-Help

When it comes to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), it’s essential to equip yourself with practical tools and self-help techniques to manage the symptoms. Let’s explore some effective strategies:

Practical Coping Strategies for Managing OCD Symptoms:

  1. Mindfulness Meditation: Regular practice helps us remember to be more aware of our thoughts and improves our skills in letting go of unwanted thoughts. It is so easy to get caught up in thoughts or emotions that regular practice and regular reminders to observe our thoughts and practice letting go is the best way to succeed.

  2. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP): ERP offers a structure to help us face our fears step by step. ERP encourages you to face your obsessions gradually and resist the compulsions. It’s like teaching your brain that those fears aren’t as scary as they seem.

  3. Journaling: There are so many benefits to journaling. First, it helps you get your thoughts out in order find a story that makes sense. When we have a coherent narrative of the situation, it is easier to stop mulling it over and let it go. Writing down your obsessions and compulsions can also help you slow things down and identify patterns or  triggers that show up in your life. It can provide and opportunity to talk things out and find solutions. It can release tension and feel cathartic. It’s like shining a light on the hidden corners of your mind.
  1. Automatic Thought Record (ATR): The automatic thought record is a useful tool that helps us practice looking at our thoughts to identify cognitive distortions and challenge negative thoughts. This can be a very illuminating practice and I highly recommend it for everyone. There are many apps to help with this. There are also many different templates available to print out if you prefer going at it analog style.

  2. Relaxation Techniques: Tension in the body is often connected to tension in the mind. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and exercise can help reduce body tension, which is often a companion of OCD. There are many guides available online to help with these practices.

  3. Support Groups: Joining a support group can provide a sense of community and a safe space to share experiences. It can be very healing and helpful to be able to talk to other who have similar experiences and understand the unique challenges that OCD can bring. We are social creatures, we do better when we are connected to others.

Self-Help Techniques:

  1. Educate Yourself: Knowledge is power. Understanding more about yourself, your mind and your body, helps you maintain balance, be more purposeful, effect, and creative. 

  2. Challenge Negative Thoughts: Guard your mind. Challenge those intrusive thoughts by challenging them with facts and checking to see if they are cognitive distortions.

  3. Set Realistic Goals: Set achievable goals for facing your fears and reducing compulsions. Small victories can lead to significant progress.

  4. Self-Compassion: Imagine how you would talk to and support a close friend going through these challenges. Be patient with yourself; find that balance is a journey, not a race. It’s like offering a soothing balm to your own soul.

Taking an Active Role in Your Mental Health Journey:

OCD is a formidable opponent, but you are not powerless. Taking an active role in your mental health journey is crucial. Here’s how:

  • Advocate for Yourself: Be your own advocate in therapy and treatment. Share your concerns, preferences, and goals with your therapist. Remember, it’s a partnership.

  • Practice Consistency: Like watering a plant, consistency is key. Regularly practice coping strategies and self-help techniques. Small, consistent efforts can lead to significant improvements over time.

  • Reach Out for Support: Don’t hesitate to lean on friends and family for support. Let them in on your journey and educate them about OCD. A strong support system can make a world of difference.

  • Celebrate Progress: Celebrate your victories, no matter how small they may seem. It’s like marking your progress on a map.

Remember, compulsions and obsessions are formidable foes, but with the right tools, support, and determination, you can regain control over your life. In the next section, we’ll delve into professional treatment options for OCD, emphasizing the importance of seeking help when needed.

Living with OCD: Stories of Hope

As we journey through the complexities of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), it’s vital to remember that there’s a beacon of hope shining through the challenges. In this section, we’re going to share real-life stories of individuals who have not only faced OCD head-on but have also emerged victorious.

Case Study 1: Sarah’s Triumph Over Obsessions and Compulsions

Meet Sarah, a young woman who, like many, initially felt overwhelmed by the constant battle with her obsessions and compulsions. Her intrusive thoughts often centered around fears of harming loved ones accidentally. She found herself engaging in elaborate rituals, such as repeatedly checking the stove or washing her hands until they were raw.

But Sarah’s story is not just about her struggles; it’s about her resilience and growth. Through therapy and a strong support system, she learned to challenge the validity of her intrusive thoughts. With time and practice, she gradually reduced her compulsions. Sarah’s journey showcases the power of therapy and determination in managing obsessions and compulsions.

Case Study 2: Tom’s Journey from Fear to Freedom

Tom’s experience with OCD was marked by an intense fear of contamination. He avoided public places, wore gloves constantly, and carried sanitizers like a security blanket. His fear held him hostage, limiting his interactions and experiences.

However, Tom’s story took a turn for the better when he decided to confront his fears through Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. With the guidance of a skilled therapist, he gradually exposed himself to situations he had been avoiding. Over time, the anxiety that once ruled his life began to lose its grip. Tom’s story exemplifies the importance of seeking professional help and the bravery it takes to face one’s fears.

The Power of Storytelling in Mental Health

These real-life accounts of individuals battling OCD are not just stories; they’re beacons of hope that illuminate the path to recovery. Storytelling is a powerful tool in mental health, as it allows us to connect on a personal level, learn from others, and find inspiration in their triumphs.

But it’s not all about the serious aspects of these stories. Humor plays a role too. Imagine Sarah joking about her tendency to check the stove and saying, “I could give any fire inspector a run for their money.” Tom might share a laugh about the time he wore gloves to a formal event, turning it into a memorable, light-hearted moment. Humor can be a healing balm, making these stories engaging and relatable.

So, what can we learn from these individuals who have navigated the maze of obsessions and compulsions? First and foremost, recovery is possible. Secondly, seeking help and being open about one’s struggles is a crucial step towards healing. By sharing their journeys, Sarah and Tom remind us that we’re not alone in this battle, and that there’s hope, even in the darkest moments.


Obsessions and compulsions can show up in many different ways. One person’s experience may not be the same as another’s. The treatment options are also quite varied. One person’s treatment journey will be different from another’s. Taking the time to learn about OCD and yourself will give you the best chance at finding some balance with the symptoms. Leaning on the support of a professional guide is your best bet at finding and maintaining the skills that work for you. Utilizing medication and proper nutrition are major supports along this journey. 

OCD is manageable and you can live a balanced and fulfilling life, it just might take some work. And hey, we all have to put in work to make it work, so it’s good to know that there are so many tools to make it work, depending on the situation. 

Reach out and ask for support! It takes a village, but you need to build/activate that village to make it work. Talk to 3 different therapists and choose the one you have rapport with. Tell at least one friend or family member that you are working with OCD and ask if you can talk to them about or lean on them during the difficult moments. Join a support group or find others with similar challenges. It’s possible. All this stuff is out there for you. It’s work, but you can do this.

Rob Martin

I utilize practical mindfulness to bring awareness to the areas that are holding us back and to find the tools that are available to grow and face those challenging aspects of our lives.