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What is OCD?

Anxious thoughts can influence our behaviour, which is helpful at times. For example, thinking ‘I may have left the oven on’ leads to you checking the oven and keeping things safe.

However, if that thought becomes obsessive (recurring), it can influence unhealthy patterns of behaviour that can cause difficulties in daily functioning. Obsessively thinking ‘I’ve left the oven on’ can lead to repeated checking.

For someone with the anxiety disorder known as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), obsessions or compulsions (acts performed to alleviate the distress or neutralise the thought), or both, are present.

People with OCD often feel intense shame about their need to carry out these compulsions. These feelings of shame can exacerbate the problem and the shame, and consequent secrecy associated with OCD can lead to a delay in diagnosis and treatment. It can also result in social disability, such as children failing to attend school or adults becoming housebound.

A person with OCD can also experience unwanted thoughts or images (also known as intrusive thoughts), such as ‘What if I hurt my child?’. These thoughts can cause distress as they are out of character and make the person worry that the thought is equal to the action – for example, thinking ‘What if I hurt my child?’ is equating with actually hurting their child. As a result, they worry about how the unwanted thought reflects on them as a person and their anxiety increases.

What are the signs and symptoms of OCD?

Issues that commonly concern people with OCD and result in compulsive behaviour include:

  • Cleanliness/order – obsessive hand-washing or household cleaning to reduce an exaggerated fear of contamination; obsession with order or symmetry, with an overwhelming need to perform tasks or place objects, such as books or cutlery, in a particular place and/or pattern
  • Counting/hoarding – repeatedly counting items or objects, such as their clothes or pavement blocks when they are walking; hoarding items such as junk mail and old newspapers
  • Safety/checking – obsessive fears about harm occurring to either themselves or others which can result in compulsive behaviours such as repeatedly checking whether the stove has been turned off or that windows and doors are locked
  • Sexual issues – having an irrational sense of disgust concerning sexual activity
  • Religious/moral issues – feeling a compulsion to pray a certain number of times a day or to such an extent that it interferes with their work and/or relationships.

People with OCD may also experience other mental health issues including depression, other anxiety disorders, an eating disorder and/or alcohol or substance-use problems. Find out about other symptoms associated with OCD.

How common is OCD and who experiences it?

Close to 3 per cent of people in Australia experience OCD in their lifetime and approximately 2 per cent in a 12 month period.

OCD can occur at any time during your life and children as young as six or seven may have symptoms, although symptoms seem to develop fully for the first time in adolescence.

What causes OCD?

OCD is thought to develop from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A number of factors may increase the risk of developing OCD, including family history, social factors and psychological factors. Other factors specific to OCD include:

  • Biological factors – OCD has been linked to several neurological factors and irregular levels of serotonin (a chemical that transmits messages between brain cells) in particular. Research into chemical, structural and functional changes or abnormalities in the brain continues.
  • Environmental / learned behaviours – Some experts suggest that OCD may develop as a result of learned behaviour, either by direct conditioning (e.g. developing a washing compulsion after contracting a disease from contact with an animal) or learning by watching the behaviour of others, e.g. parents.