Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic mental health condition characterized by obsessions which lead to compulsive behaviors.

People often double check to make sure they’ve locked the front door or always wear their lucky socks on game days — simple rituals or habits that make them feel more secure.

OCD goes beyond double checking something or practicing a game day ritual. Someone diagnosed with OCD feels compelled to act out certain rituals repeatedly, even if they don’t want to — and even if it complicates their life unnecessarily.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions).

Although people with OCD may know that their thoughts and behaviors don’t make logical sense, they’re often unable to stop them.

Obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors associated with OCD generally last more than an hour each day and interfere with daily life.

Obsessions

These are upsetting thoughts or impulses that repeatedly occur.

People with OCD may try to ignore or suppress them, but they may be afraid that somehow the thoughts might be true.

The anxiety associated with suppression can also become too great to endure, making them engage in compulsive behaviors to decrease their anxiety.

Compulsions

These are repetitive acts that temporarily relieve the stress and anxiety brought on by an obsession. Often, people who have compulsions believe these rituals will prevent something bad from happening.

Read more on the differences between obsessions and compulsions.

A typical treatment plan for OCD will usually include both psychotherapy and medications. Combining both treatments is usually the most effective.

Medication

Antidepressants are prescribed to help lessen symptoms of OCD.

A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) is an antidepressant that’s used to reduce obsessive behaviors and compulsions.

Therapy

Talk therapy with a mental health professional can help to provide you with tools that allow changes in thought and behavior patterns.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and exposure and response therapy are types of talk therapy that are effective for many people.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is aimed at allowing a person with OCD to deal with the anxiety associated with obsessive thoughts in other ways, rather than engaging in the compulsive behavior.

The exact cause of OCD is unknown, but researchers believe that certain areas of the brain may not respond normally to serotonin, a chemical that some nerve cells use to communicate with each other.

Genetics are thought to contribute to OCD, as well.

If you, your parent, or a sibling have OCD, there’s about a 25 percent chance that another immediate family member will have it.

There are several different types of obsessions and compulsions. The most well known include:

  • obsessions that involve fear of contamination (germs) with related compulsions of cleaning and washing
  • obsessions related to symmetry or perfectionism with related compulsions of ordering or redoing

According to Dr. Jill Stoddard, author of “Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance,” other obsessions include:

  • intrusive and unwanted sexual thoughts
  • fear of harming oneself or someone else
  • fear of acting impulsively (like blurting out a curse word during a moment of silence). These involve compulsions like checking, counting, praying, and repeating, and can also involve avoidance (different from compulsions) like avoiding sharp objects.

Learn more about the different types of OCD.

OCD usually develops in children within two age ranges: middle childhood (8–12 years) and between late adolescence and emerging adulthood (18–25 years), says Dr. Steve Mazza, a clinical postdoctoral fellow at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders.

“Girls tend to develop OCD at an older age than boys,” says Mazza. “Although there is a higher rate of OCD in boys than girls during childhood, there are equal rates of OCD between adult men and women.”

While the names are similar, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and OCD are very different conditions.

OCD typically involves obsessions that are followed by compulsive behaviors. OCPD describes a set of personality traits that can often interfere with a person’s relationships.

OCPD is characterized by an extreme need for orderliness, perfection, and control, including within interpersonal relationships, says Mazza. Whereas OCD is usually confined to a set of obsessive thoughts and related compulsions.

“People [who have] OCD are more likely to seek help because they are distressed or disturbed by the symptoms,” he says. “People with OCPD may not see their characterological rigidity and need for perfection as problematic, despite its destructive effects on their relationships and well-being.”

Read more about the symptoms and treatments of OCPD.

OCD is diagnosed by a mental health professional using a semi-structured interview process, according to Mazza.

One of the most widely used instruments is the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS), which assesses for a variety of the most common obsessions and compulsions, as well as the degree to which OCD symptoms cause a person distress and interfere with their functioning.

Genetics play a role in OCD, so an individual is more likely to develop it if a blood relative has an OCD diagnosis, says Mazza.

Symptoms are often worsened by stress, whether caused by issues with school, work, relationships, or life-altering events.

He also said that OCD often occurs with other conditions, including: