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What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Find out what the diagnosis of OCD really entails and how to treat it.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
June 7, 2012
Episode #096

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What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Have you seen the movie As Good As It Gets?  In it Jack Nicholson portrays a peculiar character with a series of wacky daily routines, including waking up to perform an eccentric foot ritual, dining at the same diner every day using his own home-brought utensils, demanding the same waitress every single meal (to the point of bailing her out of her troubles in order to get her back to work ASAP to serve him), returning home only to perform another elaborate ritual with his door’s dead bolt, and experiencing extreme germophobia when forced to take in a neighbor’s sweet-as-can-be puppy.

You may have known someone who was overly concerned with cleanliness or who had elaborate rituals for daily life. And you’ve probably thought “How absurd!” But Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or OCD) is no laughing matter. 

What is OCD really?  Just because you like things clean or organized, does it mean you have the disease? And what if you have an OCD diagnosis? Is there anything you can do about it?  I’d like to address these issues in my episode today..

What Is OCD?

OCD is actually a type of an anxiety disorder, and it occurs in only about 3% of the population.  Family history of anxiety disorders is common in those with OCD.  Signs of OCD often begin in the young – in adolescence or early 20’s. 

A diagnosis requires two components—obsessions and compulsions—just like the name suggests:

  • Obsessions are often recurrent, intrusive thoughts, images, or ideas that are distressing and anxiety-provoking; such as a fear of germs, the need for order, or fear of harm, etc.  Jack’s poor character truly experiences all of the above.

  • Compulsions are stereotypical impulsive acts or rituals that are performed to help alleviate the anxiety-provoking obsessions and distress.  Examples are repetitive hand-washings (as with Jack’s character in the movie), counting, rearranging, touching, and checking.

Consequences of OCD

These obsessions and compulsions are quite disturbing to the patient and their loved ones, mostly due to the intensity of anxiety experienced and the time required to carry out the compulsions.  OCD interferes with a person’s social, educational, interpersonal, and occupational aspects of life.  Overall, it’s quite a distressing and often disabling experience for those who suffer from it.  Thankfully, Jack’s character works from home – not an option that many real-life patients with OCD can choose.

As if that weren’t enough, unfortunately several other psychiatric disorders are often associated and co-exist with OCD:

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