Signs & Symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and effects of obsessive compulsive disorder. Understanding what you or your loved one is going through can be the first step to getting help.

Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Learn about obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, more commonly referred to as OCD, is a form of anxiety that causes individuals to suffer from chronic and inescapable patterns of unwanted and intrusive thoughts that they are unable to get rid of or ignore, despite having the desire to do so. The thoughts and compulsions that plague these individuals force them to adhere to certain behaviors or rituals in order to reduce feelings of anxiety or to avoid harm. The symptoms of OCD can lead to great disruption in the lives of those suffering from it, often preventing them from engaging in seemingly normal activities. In many cases, the cyclical behavior patterns do not make sense to those who are engaging in them, leading to social isolation or feelings of being ostracized. This can ultimately lead to the deterioration of one’s self-esteem, resulting in further distress. Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can help to reduce one’s symptoms of OCD and prevent future disturbances in one’s life.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for obsessive compulsive disorder

Researchers in the field of mental health have concluded that there is a combination of factors that work together to cause the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Such factors are described in the following:

Genetic: As is true for other mental illnesses, obsessive-compulsive disorder is believed to have a genetic component as it is a condition that is known to run in families. Individuals who have a first-degree relative, such as a biological parent or sibling, with OCD are at a heightened risk for developing symptoms of the disorder themselves. Additionally, if there is a family history of other types of anxiety, people are more susceptible to experiencing the onset of OCD as well.

Physical: The presence of chemical imbalances in the brain can make individuals more vulnerable to developing symptoms of OCD. Neurotransmitters, for example, are chemicals in the brain that are responsible for sending messages from one area of the brain to the next and, when they become imbalanced, their ability to send appropriate levels of serotonin to the areas of the brain that are responsible for recognizing and managing a sense of well-being, the onset of OCD symptoms can result.

Environmental: There are certain environmental factors that elicit the onset of various types of anxiety, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. Individuals who have gone through life experiences over which they did not have any control are at a heightened risk of developing symptoms synonymous with OCD because the engagement in behaviors that are characteristic of this illness can, at first, provide these people with a sense of having control over something. However, as the illness worsens, individuals eventually lose the control they have over their symptoms, further perpetuating their distress. Examples of certain factors that bring about the development of OCD can include experiencing a trauma, being the victim of abuse or neglect, growing up in dysfunctional home environments, or being exposed to chronic levels of stress.

Risk Factors:

  • Personal or family history of mental illness
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Being the victim of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse
  • Suffering from neglect
  • Extreme familial discord
  • Going through significant life changes over which one does not have any sense of control
  • Death of a loved one
  • Being under excessive levels of stress
  • Relationship turmoil
  • Lack of a support network
  • Suffering from a chronic physical illness

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America breaks the symptoms of OCD down into the two distinct categories of obsessions and compulsions. The signs and symptoms that are displayed by individuals with OCD will vary from person to person, but may include the following:

Obsessive symptoms: The obsessions that individuals suffering from OCD have are intrusive in nature, are typically unwanted, and can be all-consuming. The presence of such obsessions can take away the sufferer’s ability to focus on anything else. Examples of obsessive symptoms may include, but are not limited to:

  • Feeling overly worried about, or unnecessarily responsible for, others
  • Experiencing chronic and irrational concerns about dirt, germs, or of becoming contaminated in some way
  • Experiencing aggressive impulses; yet, these impulses tend to formulate as intrusive images in one’s mind but do not always manifest into actions
  • Inappropriate, distasteful, and unwanted images that are sexual and/or religious in nature
  • Excessive and irrational concerns about the order, arrangement, and/or symmetry of objects
  • Disturbing thoughts are graphic in nature

Compulsive symptoms: Compulsions are atypical behaviors that individuals feel compelled to perform, despite not wanting to. When such compulsive behaviors are present, people with OCD feel helpless to stop engaging in them because, if they fail to do so, they will experience increasing, often debilitating, feelings of anxiety. Examples of compulsive symptoms may include, but are not limited to:

  • Consistently rearranging objects
  • Eating foods in a certain order or pattern
  • Irrationally checking and then re-checking that certain tasks have been completed (such as repeatedly checking to make sure doors are locked)
  • Hoarding (i.e. having extreme difficulty throwing items away, even when they are useless or unimportant)
  • Experiencing an inability to stop repeating certain phrases
  • Repeatedly washing one’s hands
  • Cleaning excessively
  • Experiencing an inability to stop engaging in repetitive activities (such as having to turn a light switch on and off multiple times before exiting a room)


Effects of obsessive compulsive disorder

Suffering from OCD and being denied access to treatment can render an individual susceptible to experiencing a number of negative long-term effects. Additionally, when left untreated, the symptoms of OCD will likely continue to intensify, leading to further disruption in an individual’s life. Examples of various effects that can arise when the existence of obsessive-compulsive disorder is left unaddressed may include:

  • Poor school performance, leading to academic failure
  • Poor job performance, leading to job loss
  • Frequent absences from work or school
  • Onset of, or prolonged engagement in, self-harming behaviors
  • Social isolation
  • Impaired interpersonal relationships
  • Development of an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Obsessive compulsive disorder and co-occurring disorders

When individuals are suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is not uncommon for them to experience symptoms that are characteristic of other mental illnesses as well. The most commonly cited disorders known to co-exist alongside OCD include:

  • Panic disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Tic disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorders

Even though I was scared to get help for my anxiety, deciding to go to San Juan Capestrano Hospital was the best decision I made for my health.

– Sofia H.