Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Symptoms, treatment and resources

OCD is an anxiety disorder that usually develops in adolescence or young adulthood. However, younger children and older adults can also develop symptoms. OCD is seen in as many as 1 in 200 children and teens, and it affects about 2.2 million adults in the United States.


People with OCD experience obsessions and/or compulsions. 

Obsessions are repeated and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced as disruptive to everyday activities. The thoughts and behaviors cause anxiety and distress. Obsessions are not simply worries about real-life problems. They may be, for example, a fear of germs, imagined harm to oneself or others, “forbidden” thoughts, a fear of making a mistake, or excessive doubt. 

Compulsions are repeated acts a person with the disorder performs in an effort to control the anxiety created by the obsessions. These rituals, or repetitive behaviors, are aimed at preventing or reducing distress, or preventing some dreaded event or situation. They are excessive and not realistically connected to the obsession. Examples of compulsions include excessive hand washing, repeated checking or touching, counting, collecting, or hoarding. 

Symptoms of OCD can vary in intensity over time and can be more problematic during periods of increased stress.

How to recognize OCD

There’s a difference between having obsessive or compulsive behavior and having a disorder. Some compulsive behaviors performed in daily life to relieve anxiety are normal and even beneficial. For example, you might worry about a house fire and check twice to see if you have turned the oven off before leaving home. This is normal and adaptive. However, if you check the oven many times before leaving home, and you feel compelled to do so every time you leave your home, you may have a disorder. 

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of OCD, schedule a visit with a health care professional to explore your symptoms further.

Treatment options

OCD is frequently under-diagnosed and under-treated. This may happen because a person does not understand the illness and may be secretive about the symptoms. Working with a therapist or physician is a helpful way to explore the symptoms of OCD, in addition to symptoms of depression and anxiety that may also be present.

Physical examination

Treatment for OCD should include both a physical and a psychological evaluation. The physical exam can determine if there may be physical causes for anxiety symptoms. Medical issues that can cause symptoms of anxiety include an ulcer, asthma, or an overactive thyroid, as well as the overuse of caffeine, diet pills, or decongestants. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of several types of treatment used for anxiety disorders such as OCD. It focuses on helping a person learn and use new ways of thinking to change behaviors that are counterproductive or that interfere with everyday life. CBT can help address the underlying thought patterns that trigger compulsions. It is a time-limited, problem-focused treatment.


Medication prescribed by a physician or a nurse practitioner - combined with therapy - is a common and effective treatment approach for many people. 

Helpful resources 

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
800-950-NAMI (6264)
Self-help, support, and advocacy organization of consumers, families, and friends of people with severe mental illness 

National Institute of Mental Health
Information about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness 

Obsessive Compulsive Foundation
International organization of people with OCD, their families, friends, and professionals 

Anxiety and Depression Association of America
National organization working with clinicians, researchers, and consumers