Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

UW Health psychiatrists and psychologists treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental illness which is a type of anxiety disorder that involves obsessions and/or compulsions.

What is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?
Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, counting, "checking" (for example, repeatedly checking a door to see if it is locked), or cleaning are often performed in the hopes of preventing the obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these rituals, however, provides only temporary relief. Not performing them significantly increases anxiety.
What causes obsessive compulsive disorder?
A single cause for obsessive compulsive disorder has yet to be found. Most scientists agree that both psychological and biological factors play a role in causing the disorder.
Some research shows that obsessive compulsive disorder may be associated with an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that carry messages from one nerve cell to another. One such chemical is serotonin. A person who has obsessive compulsive disorder may not have enough serotonin. Many people who have obsessive compulsive disorder are less affected by their obsessions and compulsions when they take medicines that increase the amount of serotonin in their brain.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Signs and Symptoms
Obsessions are defined by:
  1. Recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses or images that cause marked anxiety or distress.
  2. The thoughts, impulses or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems.
  3. The person attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, impulses or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action.
  4. The person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses or images are a product of his or her own mind (not coming from an external source).

Compulsions are defined by:

  1. Repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.
  2. The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation. However, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent or are clearly excessive.

At some point during the course of the disorder, the person has recognized that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable. Note: This does not apply to children.

The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time-consuming (occupy more than one hour per day) or significantly interfere with the person's normal routine, job and usual social activities or relationships.


More About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder usually begins before age 25 years and often in childhood or adolescence. In individuals seeking treatment, the mean age of onset appears to be somewhat earlier in men than women.
  • Approximately 2.2 million American adults age 18 and older have obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Patients with obsessive compulsive disorder are at high risk of having major depression and other anxiety disorders. The most common concurrent disorders are: major depression, social phobia, eating disorder, simple phobia, panic disorder and Tourette's syndrome.



There is no known cure for obsessive compulsive disorder but it is often treatable. Most cases of obsessive compulsive disorder are successfully treated with:

  • Medications 
  • Psychotherapy 
  • Support groups