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The Facts About OCD

Find out how obsessive-compulsive disorder affects your sexual health.


hand straightening multicolored binder clips, pencils and paper clips into straight lines
Illustration by: Illustration by Jaelen Brock

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is common in the United States, where a reported 2.5 million adults live with the condition, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

An estimated 200,000 new cases are identified in the U.S. annually.

An overview of OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious mental disorder. It occurs when an individual experiences a pattern of unwanted thoughts, fears or obsessions, which result in repetitive compulsive behaviors. For many with OCD, the intensity of the obsessions and compulsions can prove debilitating and lead to significant distress. Plus, attempts to ignore the obsessions or refrain from compulsive behavior often lead to even worse stress and anxiety.

Acting on compulsions does not provide long-term relief, but individuals with OCD typically feel driven to carry out repetitive and ritualistic behaviors in an attempt to ease any stress and anxiety caused by their obsessive thoughts and fears.

As the relief provided by the compulsions is not long-lasting, a cycle of obsessions and compulsions can arise.

Causes of OCD

Experts do not fully understand the cause of OCD. As is the case with many mental disorders, factors such as biology, genetics and the environment are believed to contribute to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For example, mental health experts believe the disorder may be caused, in part, by changes in the natural chemistry and function of the brain and body. Though no specific genes are linked to OCD yet, it is believed the disorder may have a genetic component.

In some cases, someone who witnesses close family or friends experience obsessive fears and compulsive behaviors may have a higher likelihood of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder themselves.

Risk factors for OCD

Although the exact cause of OCD remains unknown, certain factors put an individual at a higher risk for developing the disorder at some point in their lifetime.

Risk factors for obsessive-compulsive disorder include:

  • Family history. Research indicates people who have parents or close relatives with OCD are at a greater risk for developing the disorder.
  • Life circumstances. For some individuals, experiencing or witnessing traumatic and stressful events may make them more likely to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is partly because trauma and distress can trigger OCD symptoms such as intrusive thoughts and fears, and repetitive and ritualistic compulsive behavior.
  • Personal experience with mental health issues. Often, obsessive-compulsive disorder can be related to other existing mental issues. These can include anxiety disorders, depression and tic disorders (e.g., Tourette syndrome), as well as substance use problems. If you struggle with any of these conditions, you may face a greater risk of developing OCD.

Signs and symptoms of your OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms typically fall under two umbrellas: obsessions and compulsions. While most people with OCD usually experience symptoms of both types, some may experience only obsessions or compulsions.

Obsession symptoms can include:

  • Fear of germs and contamination
  • Intense stress when things don't meet an internal and often arbitrary standard of order
  • Irrational self-doubt about things like whether the door is locked or if the stove is off, even when you know they are
  • Mental images of or urges to do horrific, obscene, dangerous or inappropriate things
  • Persistent and unwanted thoughts, mental images or urges

Compulsion symptoms can include:

  • Arranging things to be symmetrical
  • Demanding reassurance from others
  • Repeatedly checking doors to see if they're locked or the stove to make sure it's off
  • Silently repeating prayers, words or phrases to yourself
  • Washing your hands or brushing your teeth until your hands or gums are raw or bleeding

If unwanted thoughts or fears and repetitive or ritualistic behaviors are taking up a lot of your time and getting in the way of your daily activities and responsibilities, you may be suffering from OCD.

Diagnosis of your OCD

Before you receive a diagnosis of OCD, a medical or mental health professional will conduct a psychological evaluation to learn more about your thoughts, feelings, fears and symptoms. This will help determine whether you are experiencing obsessions and compulsions. This evaluation will help measure the severity of your symptoms so they can determine what treatment, if any, is needed.

Your symptoms may be compared to the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder outlined in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)—a reference book that describes the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the U.S.

Finally, in some instances, a physical exam may be completed to check for underlying or related conditions that could be contributing to your symptoms.

Treatment for OCD

While OCD treatment doesn't always result in a "cure" for the person's condition, it can significantly reduce symptoms and give you the tools to cope with your obsessions and compulsions when they occur.

If you have severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may benefit from more intensive treatment, while others may benefit from more short-term treatment.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is typically treated with psychotherapy or medication, or a combination of the two. If psychotherapy and medication aren't sufficient to improve severe OCD symptoms, your mental health provider may suggest intensive outpatient or residential treatment programs, deep brain stimulation or transcranial magnetic stimulation, according to Mayo Clinic.

Managing your OCD

Living with obsessive-compulsive disorder can lead to complications in your day-to-day life, relationships and romantic partnerships. Research suggests there may be a link between OCD and sexual dysfunction.

Many people are able to find coping strategies that help them manage living with OCD. Others may require help from a mental health professional and long-term treatment to ensure obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn't interfere with their quality of life.

Effective OCD treatment is available, so don't hesitate to seek help.


Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be much more severe than the casual depictions you see in popular media, where people are depicted as being particular about specific things here and there.

In reality, sufferers of OCD find they are constantly battling intrusive and unwanted thoughts, mental images, fears and urges. Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder often feel an intense compulsion to carry out repeated and ritualistic behaviors that give them temporary relief from the stress and anxiety caused by their obsessions. However, the relief is short-lived and the cycle continues.

Fortunately, effective treatments for OCD are available. If you think you are struggling with OCD, contact a mental health professional.

For more information, start your online journey by looking for support, welcoming communities and further information:


What are the 3 major symptoms of OCD?

A major symptom of OCD is having persistent, often distressing, obsessions. These obsessions can include unwanted and intrusive thoughts, fears, images or urges. Another common symptom is compulsive behavior. Compulsions can include behavior such as excessive hand washing or feeling the need to seek constant reassurance from others about things that stress you. The third most common symptom of OCD is repetitive and ritualistic behavior that interferes with daily activities and responsibilities.

How do I know if I have OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder varies greatly from person to person, though the symptoms often follow specific themes. These can include an intense fear of germs or contamination and an intense drive for order in your life that leads to a desire for symmetry of things around you. You may have unwanted thoughts and urges, and self-doubt about things such as whether you locked the door or turned off the stove. If you think you are struggling with OCD, contact a mental health professional for help.

What is the root cause of OCD?

Experts remain unsure of what exactly causes obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, it's believed a few factors may contribute to the development of OCD. These include a family history of obsessive-compulsive disorder, already suffering from other mental health disorders, and having lived through stressful or traumatic life events.