Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that occurs when individuals have irrational patterns of uncontrollable fears and thoughts that lead to engaging in compulsive behavior. The obsessions and compulsions both interfere with a patient's day-to-day functioning and lead to significant emotional or physical distress. When someone with OCD tries to stop their thought spirals or resist compulsions, it can lead to more anxiety and stress.
Not every case of obsessive-compulsive disorder presents the same way. Though the better-known manifestation of OCD involves an obsession with cleanliness and fear of germs, this condition can develop around any theme. It's important to note while obsessive-compulsive disorder can sometimes seem uncontrollable, there are multiple treatment methods available. A combination of medication and psychotherapy is often effective at helping OCD patients.
Intrusive and Repetitive Thoughts
Obsessive-compulsive disorder presents with intrusive and repetitive thoughts that often follow patterns. These thoughts may then lead to the need to act out compulsions to lessen them. The most common media portrayals of OCD tend to show affected individuals struggling with obsessive thought spirals about cleanliness and purity, along with fear of germs and contamination. Though this is one of the main ways OCD can manifest, there are other forms intrusive thoughts can take. Oftentimes, intrusive thoughts can be violent and extremely upsetting.
It's normal to have occasional thoughts like, 'I could drive my car into oncoming traffic or hit a pedestrian and harm people.' With a neurotypical brain, these thoughts can be put aside. Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, on the other hand, will obsess about them and may even feel like they've committed the violent act just by thinking about it. Even if OCD obsessions center around immoral or violent thoughts, affected individuals are not more likely to actually commit these acts than the general population. They find these thoughts extremely upsetting and suffer from them.
Compulsions Toward Certain Activities
The other hallmark symptom of OCD is compulsions toward certain activities. With obsessive-compulsive disorder, patients feel like they need to complete a particular behavior to make their fears stop. Some of these compulsions may follow a fairly standard thought process. For example, if an affected individual has an obsessive fear of being contaminated by germs, they may need to wash their hands a certain number of times or wipe their hands off after they touch others.
However, some of the compulsions may follow a phenomenon called 'magical thinking.' This occurs when the patient with OCD constructs rituals and behaviors with rules that don't make sense. One example would be responding to a fear of a pet dying by spinning around a certain number of times or clapping a certain number of times. Regardless of how the compulsions start, they cause significant distress, and trying to stop following them leads to increased stress and continued obsessive thinking.
Physical Distress When Routines Aren't Followed
Individuals with OCD often develop very particular routines and rituals regarding their thoughts and compulsions. They can experience physical distress when routines aren't followed. Physical distress can involve physical feelings of anxiety like a racing heart, upset stomach, shaking hands, and rapid breathing. Anxiety has the potential to cause digestive issues as well. There are some other cases where obsessive-compulsive disorder is centered around false physical sensations.
Some doctors report treating patients who experience the urge to urinate with unusual frequency. Their bodies send signals they need to urinate even if they don't need to empty their bladders, and until they go to the bathroom, their thoughts are obsessively centered around the need to urinate. Patients with these symptoms can benefit from learning how to acknowledge false signals from the body and work in therapy on how to stop responding to them.
Anxiety And Fear When Routines Aren't Followed
Obsessive-compulsive disorder patients often experience anxiety and fear when routines aren't followed. With the classic example, fear of germs, failing to wash their hands or wipe off or bathe with the frequency they're used to can make them feel extremely distressed about their bodies being contaminated by germs. Another common example is with double-checking. Someone with OCD may be plagued by worries they haven't turned the stove off, locked the door, or done other important safety-related tasks.
Even if they clearly remember locking the door and turning the oven off, they may not be able to stop obsessing until they double-check. Many obsessive-compulsive disorder patients end up checking these things three or more times. When they don't double check, they experience fear and anxiety that something bad is going to happen because they aren't completing the compulsion.
Need for Perfection
Perfectionism and OCD aren't always the same thing. A perfectionist needs to perform flawlessly or receive perfect results on a test, and they experience upset if they don't manage this. Perfectionism is an irrational behavior that causes distress, but it's often rooted in having too-high standards. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, on the other hand, involves obsessions and compulsions. Some individuals with OCD may feel a need for perfection when their obsessions and compulsions are centered around performance, their environment, or their behavior. For example, if someone with OCD has obsessive thoughts regarding the organization and layout of their space, they may be upset if things aren't perfect. If a painting is misaligned or clothes are left on the floor, it could lead to an inordinate amount of distress until the 'imperfection' is corrected.