Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety and Related Disorders
7 W 36th St, 15 Fl, New York, NY
(212) 203-9792

About OCD

What is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that causes distressing and unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses (obsessions) that result in strong urges to engage in repetitive thoughts or behaviors (compulsions) to reduce this distress.

Obsessions and compulsions can be distressing and time consuming to the point of interfering with important activities such as work, socializing, and spending time with family or friends.  These symptoms can feel embarrassing because individuals with OCD often realize their fears and compulsions are excessive and that they don’t make sense. Click here to learn more about common obsessional themes.

Obsessions are thoughts that can cause extreme anxiety, disgust or doubt that lead to strong urges to reduce the anxiety by doing a compulsion.  For example, a person may worry about becoming contaminated or dirty and contracting an illness. However, there is a wide range of fears that people with OCD report.

Compulsions are repetitive thoughts or behaviors that are intended to reduce distress by neutralizing, counteracting or undoing obsessive fears. In some cases, compulsions may take the form of a prolonged mental struggle to make sense of or disprove obsessive fears while for others they may involve repeated behaviors like excessive hand washing or checking. Compulsions may temporarily reduce distress until the next obsessive fear arises or a compulsion may increase distress if it is unsuccessful in neutralizing a fear. For example, a person might feel contaminated and have to wash their hands or shower repeatedly till they feel clean or they might struggle to disprove a fear mentally without success and feel intense anxiety as a result.  People with OCD report many different types of compulsions.

How common is OCD and what causes it?

About 1-2% of the population has OCD (1 to 2 people out of 100). The causes of OCD are not fully known although genes, biology, and the environment all appear to be involved. Research has shown that OCD is a disorder that effects areas of the brain involved in identifying and managing danger. In a person without OCD these brain areas become highly active when a real threat or danger is present and they help to initiate actions to prevent or avoid harm. In a person with OCD, these brain areas may become highly active in the absence of a true threat or danger (like a false alarm), which causes distressing thoughts and strong urges to avoid or neutralize these thoughts and emotions. This is why people with OCD can feel like their fears don’t make sense at times while still being highly distressed and feeling strong urges to do compulsions. Fortunately, effective treatments exist. Click here to learn about how OCD is treated.