Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, mental illness in which a person experiences recurrent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and feels compelled to perform certain behaviors (compulsions) again and again. Most people have experienced bizarre or inappropriate thoughts and have engaged in repetitive behaviors at times. However, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder find that their disturbing thoughts and behaviors consume large amounts of time, cause them anxiety and distress, and interfere with their ability to function at work and in social activities. Most people with this disorder recognize that their obsessions and compulsions are irrational but cannot suppress them.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood. It affects from 1.5 to 2 percent of people in the United States. The disorder affects slightly more women than men.
Obsessions can include a variety of thoughts, images, and impulses. Common obsessions include fears of contamination from germs, doubts about whether doors are locked or appliances are turned off, nonsensical impulses such as shouting in public, sexual thoughts that are disturbing to the individual, and thoughts of accidentally and unknowingly harming someone. People with obsessions may avoid shaking hands with other people because they fear contamination, or they may avoid driving because they fear they will injure someone in a traffic accident.
People usually perform compulsions to relieve the anxiety produced by their obsessions, although not all people with obsessions perform compulsions. The most common compulsions involve cleaning rituals and checking rituals. For example, people with obsessions about germs may wash their hands dozens of times each day until their skin becomes raw. People with obsessions about neatness and symmetry may constantly rearrange or straighten objects on their desk. People with checking compulsions must repeatedly check to make sure they locked doors and windows or turned off water faucets. Other compulsions include counting objects, hoarding vast amounts of useless materials, and repeating words or prayers internally.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder can have disabling effects on people’s lives. People with severe cases of this disorder may need hospitalization to help treat the compulsions. In less extreme instances, individuals with compulsions often must allow a great deal of extra time to complete seemingly routine tasks, such as preparing to leave the house in the morning. Individuals may avoid going to certain places or engaging in certain activities because they feel embarrassed about their behavior.
In addition, family members of someone with this disorder may feel angry at the person because the compulsive behaviors intrude on their time together or interfere with the family’s functioning. For instance, some individuals hoard things, such as newspapers or magazines, because they believe they may someday need certain pieces of information. The piles of newspapers may cover the living areas and make other family members feel embarrassed to have guests in the home.
Like many mental illnesses, obsessive-compulsive disorder appears to result from a combination of biological and psychological influences. Some people may have a biological predisposition to experience anxiety. Research also suggests that abnormal levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin may play a role in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Brain scans of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder have revealed abnormalities in the activity level of the orbital cortex, cingulate cortex, and caudate nucleus, a brain circuit that helps control movements of the limbs.
The disorder may develop when these biological influences combine with a psychological vulnerability to anxiety. Some people may develop a psychological vulnerability to anxiety in childhood. They may come to believe that the world is a potentially dangerous place over which one has little control. People seem to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder specifically when they learn that some thoughts are dangerous or unacceptable and, while attempting to suppress these thoughts, develop anxiety about the recurrence of the thoughts and about the perceived dangerousness and intrusiveness of the thoughts.
Treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder includes psychotherapy, psychoactive drugs, or both. Mental health professionals consider exposure and response prevention, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy, to be the most effective form of psychotherapy for this disorder. In this technique, the therapist exposes the patient to feared thoughts or situations and prevents the patient from acting on his or her compulsion. For example, a therapist might have patients with cleaning compulsions touch something dirty and then prevent them from washing their hands. This technique helps 60 to 70 percent of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Medications to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and fluvoxamine (Luvox). A tricyclic antidepressant, clomipramine (Anafranil), also helps relieve symptoms of the disorder. About 80 percent of people with the disorder show some improvement with a combined treatment of medication and behavioral therapy. However, many patients relapse when they stop taking the medication.
Lynn F. Bufka
David H. Barlow