Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Causes, Effects, Treatments

-By Sania Patel


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being, which affect how people think, act, and feel. Mental health determines how certain people handle stress, social gatherings, difficult decisions, and other aspects of daily life. Most directly translated, mental health is used as an umbrella term for one’s overall state of mind. Psychological and physical health go hand-in-hand; mental health is the leading cause of factors that lead to either success or failure.

Poor mental health is the major cause of addiction to substances, homelessness, poverty, anxiety, and depression. The phrase “poor mental health” is often grouped with the definition of mental illness; however, these two terms are incredibly different. One can suffer from poor mental health but not have a mental illness, and poor mental health defines the actual state of one’s mind rather than the effects after exposure to a disease. Poor mental health can be easily treated with certain medications, therapy, a change in lifestyle, or expanded coping abilities. As stated previously, mental illnesses provide a stark contrast to the idea of “poor mental health.”

The American Psychiatric Association explains that mental illnesses involve changes in emotion, behavior, or thinking. Mental illnesses are often prevalent shortly after birth and can cause distress, anxiety, depression, and difficulty functioning in social, work, or family environments. Mental illnesses have become increasingly popular in recent years, as a study conducted in 2016 recorded that one in five Americans will experience mental illness in a given year. Currently, one in twenty-five Americans lives with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Obsessive compulsive disorder, commonly abbreviated as OCD, is defined as recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations that make people feel driven to do a task repeatedly. These tasks often involve great detail and can significantly affect a person’s mood, making them feel angry, depressed, or anxious when not completed correctly. Often, OCD involves everyday chores, such as hand washing, ordering and arranging, hoarding, and repeating words in one’s head. Many people explain that these desires come suddenly and build over time; they also demonstrate that when they are not completed with perfection, the task will be repeated until such is done. However, OCD involves physical tasks, and many people are affected by random, explicit thoughts. Acting as a driving force to one’s actions, OCD thoughts may include a fear of losing control and harming others, sexually violent thoughts or images, and excessive focus of religious or moral ideas.

Although OCD involves both obsessions and compulsions, the symptoms of each differ and may appear separately. The Mayo Clinic explains obsession symptoms as,

“repeated, persistent and unwanted thoughts, urges or images that are intrusive and cause distress or anxiety. [One] might try to ignore them or get rid of them by performing a compulsive behavior or ritual. These obsessions typically intrude when [one is] trying to think of or do other things.”

Obsession symptoms often have common themes such as fear of contamination, needing things organized, self-doubt and difficulty tolerating uncertainty, aggressive or horrific thoughts, and unwanted sexual or religious thoughts. Obsessive signs of OCD include fear of being contaminated by objects others have touched, doubts about certain tasks (such as locking the car or turning off the stove), intense stress when things are not perfectly organized, unpleasant sexual images, thoughts about shouting obscenities, or misbehaving in public, and avoidance of situations that trigger obsession (such as shaking hands).

On the other hand, there are compulsion symptoms. Often caused by rules or rituals one makes to control anxiety, these share common themes of washing and cleaning, checking, organizing, following a strict routine, and counting. Examples of compulsion signs involve hand-washing until one’s skin becomes raw, checking doors repeatedly to make sure they are locked, counting in specific patterns, silently repeating a prayer, and arranging objects to face the same way.

OCD is caused by three main factors, biology, genetics, and learning. For biology, one may have OCD due to their body’s natural chemistry or brain functions. OCD may also appear due to genetics. Currently, no specific genes have been identified to cause OCD. However, it is believed there may be a genetic component. Finally, OCD may result in a person due to learning. OCD can often arise due to the environment one has grown up in. These obsessive fears and compulsive behaviors can be naturally adapted after continuous exposure to family members or friends suffering from OCD.

Many risk factors increase one’s chance of acquiring OCD. Family history, stressful life events, and other mental health disorders are the three main groups. Family history describes the similarities in genetics that may contribute to the development of OCD. Having parents or other family members with the disorder can significantly increase one’s acquiring OCD. Stressful life events also play a role in developing OCD, as particular events may trigger intrusive thoughts, rituals, and emotional distress. Finally, other mental health disorders may contribute to the development of OCD because certain disorders hold biological and genetic connections to each other.

OCD can have many detrimental effects on a patient’s life and mental state. People suffering from OCD often face financial problems, substance use disorder, strained relationships, suicidal thoughts, difficulty maintaining employment, and physical evidence of compulsive behaviors. Unlike other mental illnesses, OCD directly affects the brain and changes how one’s mind processes information. This can lead to social anxiety, isolation, depression, and anxiety, further progressing the disorder.

Although the prospect of OCD treatment seems bleak, there are currently several treatment options. The most effective treatments for OCD are Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and medication. The most popular type of CBT is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). A licensed medical professional typically conducts this treatment in an outpatient setting. Medications can also be prescribed to advance treatment plans further. Ideally, both therapy and medications allow a patient to gain exposure and rationalize their obsessions and compulsions. Through treatment, patients can safely recognize and eliminate their behaviors, while medicine acts to sedate the feelings, emotions, thoughts, and actions resulting from the disorder.

Therapy and medication are just the two most common ways to heal from OCD. Several other therapies are available, such as Habit Reversal Training, Cognitive Therapy, and Imaginal Exposure. All of these options offer a safe, beneficial way to overcome OCD. Over time, however, more research should be conducted to discover specific OCD-causing genes and pathways to eliminate the environmental cause of OCD. By offering cheaper access to health care services and increasing research in the mental health field, these discoveries, along with so many more, can help millions of people suffering from mental illnesses.