Inside Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

How to recognize the symptoms of this crippling anxiety disorder.

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Nearly 1 in 40 Americans is paralyzed by the need to perform irrational rituals: Washing their hands over and over, locking the front door 5 times before they can leave the house or counting to 7 before entering a room. Unusual habits like these are manifestations of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

The onset of this crippling anxiety disorder generally happens in adults around age 21 and can inflict children near age 10. Typically, there is a significant delay between symptom onset and treatment due to the patient's own embarrassment and the long-held but false belief that little can be done about OCD.

Quality of life for the OCD sufferer is greatly compromised because of shame, distress and time spent carrying out compulsive behaviors. One study found that 13% of OCD patients have attempted suicide.

Would you know if you or a loved one was suffering from OCD?

OCD is a two-fold anxiety disorder that consists of:

  1. Obsessions: Involuntary thoughts, ideas, images or impulses that become disturbing or distracting and won't go away. Examples include a preoccupation with dirt or germs; fear or worry of accidentally harming people; or an extreme need for order and symmetry. Some people with OCD harbor obsessions around sexual, religious or violent images that they themselves find disturbing or repugnant, but cannot stop.
  2. Compulsions: Behaviors or rituals one feels compelled to act out again and again. Excessive hand washing or cleaning; double-checking of locks, appliances or switches; and ordering or arranging things "just so" are common types of compulsive behavior.  Rituals such a praying, counting or tapping before simple everyday acts like shaking hands or driving to the supermarket can also be symptoms of OCD. These repetitive behavioral patterns are performed to create a sense of control, help the person feel safe, and neutralize the anxiety created by the obsession.

The symptoms for OCD can range from mild to severe. While OCD sufferers know their behavior is irrational, they often can't stop it on their own. Also, they're often ashamed or unaware they even have a treatable disorder. Unfortunately, OCD can be easily mistaken for another mental health issue such as depression, bipolar disorder or attention deficit anxiety disorder (ADHD), making it all the more difficult to diagnose, or resulting in the wrong treatment.