Obsessions and Compulsions – An Overview of OCD

At Man Behind The Mirror we review and discuss a wide range of range of topics such as mental health.

In this article we provide an introduction to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which affects about 1 in 40 adults in the UK.

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common mental health condition where a person has obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

Obsessions are unwelcome thoughts, images, urges, worries or doubts that repeatedly appear in your mind. It can make a person feel very anxious (although some people describe it as 'mental discomfort' rather than anxiety).

Compulsions are repetitive activities that are done to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession. It could be something like repeatedly checking a door is locked or repeating a specific phrase in your head.

Lots of people have misconceptions about OCD. Some people think it just means you wash your hands a lot or you like things to be tidy.

Although many people experience minor obsessions (such as worrying about leaving the gas on, or if the door is locked) and compulsions (such as avoiding the cracks in the pavement), these don’t significantly interfere with daily life, or are short-lived.

If you experience OCD, it's likely that your obsessions and compulsions will have a big impact on how you live your life.

This includes disruption to day-to-day life (repeating compulsions can take up a lot of time), a feeling of anxiousness, and a negative impact on relationships.

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What are the causes of OCD?

Whilst it’s not certain what causes OCD, a number of different factors are believed to play a part.

  • Family history: you're more likely to develop OCD if a family member has it implying a genetic connection exists
  • The brain: Some people with OCD have areas of unusually high activity in their brain or low levels of a chemical called serotonin
  • Life events: OCD is may be more common in people who have been subject to a traumatic life event, such as being bullied or abused
  • Personality traits: neat, meticulous, methodical people with high personal standards may be more likely to develop OCD

Are there related disorders?

There are several other mental health problems similar in nature to OCD because they involve repetitive thoughts, behaviours or urges. These include;

  • Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD):This is obsessive worrying about one or more perceived flaws in your physical appearance and developing compulsive routines to deal with worries about the way you look.
  • Compulsive skin picking (CSP): This is the repetitive picking at your skin to relieve anxiety or urges. It can be experienced as part of BDD
  • Trichotillomania: This is a compulsive urge to pull out your hair.

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What are the symptoms of OCD?

OCD can affect men, women and children. Some people start having symptoms early, often around puberty, but it usually starts during early adulthood.

If you have OCD, you'll usually experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

  • An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease.
  • A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that you feel you need to do to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought.

For example, someone with an obsessive fear of being burgled may feel they need to check all the windows and doors are locked several times before they can leave their house.

Women can sometimes have OCD during pregnancy or after their baby is born. Obsessions may include worrying about harming the baby or not sterilising feeding bottles properly. Compulsions could be things such as repeatedly checking the baby is breathing.

What are the treatments for OCD?

The main treatments for OCD are those similar to other mental health disorders; medication and psychological therapy.

The medication prescribed is usually a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These help by altering the balance of chemicals in the brain.

Meanwhile, psychological therapy, usually cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), aims to help a person face their obsessive thoughts without "putting them right" through compulsions.

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At Man Behind The Mirror, we review and discuss a wide range of topics including mental health. If you recognise these symptoms either in yourself, or a family member or friend, we encourage you to have an open conversation. You should also reach out to your GP, who is knowledgeable in these areas, and can listen, advise and support you.

 If you have any follow-up questions don't hesitate to contact us at help@manbehindthemirror.co.uk

Written by Mike Firth, GP and Medical Director