Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

At a glance

  • People who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) keep repeating certain behaviors or having the same thoughts over and over again.
  • These compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts can be a big problem, greatly affecting your everyday life.
  • But it's almost impossible to suppress them, and trying to do so can make you feel anxious.
  • Many people manage to overcome OCD with the help of behavioral therapy.
  • Medication can help too.

Introduction

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PantherMedia / Petro Feketa

Most of us sometimes do things that we know are over the top and unnecessary – like double-checking whether the oven is off before going on vacation. But in some people the urge to repeat certain behaviors is so strong that it causes problems in everyday life. If they aren't able to satisfy the urge, they feel uncomfortable, stressed or anxious.

Obsessive-compulsive urges like this may gradually come to dominate their whole life. There are different types of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some people constantly wash their hands. Others can't stop counting things, cleaning their home or obsessing over the same repetitive thoughts. Regardless of the kind of ritual they may have developed, people who have OCD just can't stop doing these things.

Symptoms

OCD can lead to both obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, urges and images that repeatedly enter your mind and are almost impossible to shake off. They are often very distressing, and it's hard to stop them with will power alone.

Typical obsessions include a constant fear of germs and infections, a fear of forgetting to do something, and a fear of behaving inappropriately. Some people have an obsessive fear of hurting themselves or others, or of sexually assaulting someone. But that doesn't mean that they would actually do those things.

Compulsive behaviors are associated with actions. These actions are certain rituals that are repeated over and over. For people with OCD, this is a way to try to get frightening thoughts out of their head and feel safe again. Some people are afraid of dirt, and constantly wash their hands or clean their home all the time. People who compulsively arrange things have developed a very specific idea of how and in what order they should be arranged. If they are arranged in a different way, it makes them nervous. Some people are compelled to collect things, and can't throw anything away. This can become so extreme that they may stop taking out the garbage. Others can't stop counting: For example, repeatedly counting to 20 helps them feel calm for a short while. Suppressing this behavior makes them feel anxious, tense and scared.

People with OCD know that their obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors are over the top and illogical. That is worrying and distressing. Many feel like they're powerless to do anything and have no control over the situation. That makes them feel even more anxious. Some worry that they might be "going mad."

Causes

There are probably many reasons why some people develop OCD. It is thought that genetic, psychological and external circumstances all play a role. OCD sometimes develops following a stressful time in life or a serious crisis. Some people with OCD experienced traumatic events in childhood, such as abuse or the sudden death of a close relative. Certain personality traits seem to increase the likelihood of developing OCD too. For example, some people who develop OCD tend to be very responsible and conscientious by nature, and may be scared of making mistakes.

Genes might also influence the development of OCD. There are often several people in one family who have OCD symptoms. But the causes may vary from person to person.

Prevalence

OCD is fairly common. It is estimated that as many as 3 out of every 100 adults are affected by it at some point in their lives. Although it can develop at any age, it often starts in childhood, puberty or early adulthood.

Outlook

It usually takes some time before people notice that they or someone else have developed OCD. This condition doesn't appear from one day to the next. A lot of people think that their behavior is normal until they realize how much time their rituals are taking up. This may affect their work, family lives or relationships and make it difficult for them to fulfill their responsibilities or pursue hobbies. The disorder starts to take over their lives.

OCD may develop differently over time in different people. Without treatment, it often becomes chronic, although the intensity of symptoms may vary. Some people with OCD go through phases where they have no symptoms, though. The type of obsessions and compulsions might change over time too.

OCD is often less severe in adults than it is in younger people. If children and teenagers with OCD don't have treatment, 4 out of 10 of them experience an improvement in symptoms within five years. But many people only manage to get their OCD under control with the help of professionals.

Diagnosis

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether someone has OCD or another condition with similar symptoms. To get a reliable , it's important to see a doctor or psychotherapist. The first step is finding out what kind of obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors you have, and how you feel about them. The therapist asks various questions, such as the following:

  • Do you find that certain thoughts or images keep coming to mind even though you try to shut them out?
  • What do you do to get rid of these thoughts?
  • Do you think that any of your behavior is illogical or exaggerated?
  • Do you feel you need to do certain things over and over again even though you don't want to?

To be diagnosed with OCD, a person must have obsessions and compulsions on most days for at least two weeks, or their symptoms must noticeably interfere with their daily life. Sometimes OCD also causes physical symptoms, like very dry skin in people who feel compelled to wash themselves all the time.

The also involves looking for signs of other illnesses that cause similar symptoms. For instance, people who constantly worry too much about all sorts of things might have general anxiety disorder rather than OCD.

OCD sometimes occurs together with several other psychological problems or disorders. Many people with OCD also have depression.

Treatment

Although there's no “cure” for OCD, with good professional help the symptoms can be reduced to a tolerable level, enabling people with OCD to start leading normal lives again.

People with OCD are usually advised to have psychological treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular has been proven to be an effective treatment for OCD. In Germany, it is offered by behavioral therapists.

Medication for (antidepressants) may be considered in addition to CBT, or if psychological treatment isn't an option (yet). Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly used for this purpose.

Apart from these treatments, self-help is an option, for example by talking to other people with OCD in a support group. Some people like to use books or websites to learn about their obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors, and deal with them. Others may try to manage their OCD using relaxation techniques like meditation, autogenic training or breathing exercises.

Everyday life

OCD can be distressing and very time-consuming. It may become so severe that you hardly have time for anything else in life, making it difficult or impossible to get on with daily activities. People with OCD are also often ashamed of their thoughts or behavior. They might try to hide their behavior because they're worried that other people will think they're weird. It is usually very difficult to hide, though.

Many people are reluctant to seek help or tell others about their problem. Others might worry that being labeled "mentally ill" could affect their work and their families. But many people who have completed treatment say that they wish they had got help earlier.

OCD can be a challenge for families and sometimes lead to conflict. Family members may feel they also need to go along with the compulsive behavior, for instance by arranging things in a certain order, so they don't upset the person with OCD.

Many parents in particular also feel bad because they think they should have noticed their child's problem sooner.

But it often takes a long time to realize that someone has OCD, not least because they try to hide their obsessive-compulsive behavior for as long as possible. Others don't think that they have OCD themselves, so they refuse to accept any help.

Family members are important when it comes to helping people with OCD, though, because they may understand the disorder better than other people do. When family members are involved in therapy, they can sometimes even help the person to face their fears and manage their behavior. This can be especially helpful after the treatment is completed, to help make sure that it has a lasting effect.

Further Information

When people are ill or need medical advice, they usually go to see their family doctor first. Read about how to find the right doctor, how to prepare for the appointment and what to remember.

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on July 27, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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