#MentalHealthMatters: What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Explained By Psychologist

If you have recurring, unwanted thoughts and repetitive, ritualistic behaviours, you may be suffering from OCD. 

Sushmita Sharma
Written by: Sushmita SharmaUpdated at: May 23, 2023 01:30 IST
#MentalHealthMatters: What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Explained By Psychologist

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Have you ever double-checked to make sure you locked the front door before leaving your house? Or maybe you've found yourself arranging your books on the shelf in a specific order, feeling uneasy if they're not perfectly aligned. These behaviours, to some extent, are fairly common and often dismissed as quirks or personal preferences. However, for individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), these behaviours can become all-consuming, overwhelming, and disruptive to their daily lives.

Sanya Kataria, Clinical Psychologist, Lissun, Mental Health and Emotional Wellness Startup, shared insights on this mental health condition and how to deal with it.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD is characterised by recurring, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive, ritualistic behaviours (compulsions). It can manifest in various forms, impacting individuals differently and leading to significant distress and impairment. There are several different ways in which a person can end up suffering from a problem, such as OCD and it is never simple.

Symptoms Of OCD

OCD is characterised by the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions that cause significant distress and interfere with daily functioning. The symptoms of OCD can vary in type, intensity, and frequency among individuals. 


Kataria said that Obsessions are unwanted and distressing ideas, thoughts, images, or impulses that enter your mind on a regular basis. They may appear to happen against your will. For example, the recurrent thought or impulse to do serious physical harm to your children even though you never would." 


Kataria further said that compulsions, on the other hand, are behaviours or acts that you feel compelled to perform despite the fact that they are senseless or excessive. You may try to avoid performing them at times, although this may be tough.For example, you may feel the need to check appliances, water taps, and the front door lock several times before leaving the house. While most compulsions are visible activities, some are not, such as silent checks or needing to recite silly phrases to oneself every time you have an unpleasant thought.

Avoidance Behaviours

Avoidance of situations, places, or people that trigger obsessive thoughts or lead to compulsive behaviours. Social isolation or withdrawal to prevent distress or anxiety.

Intense Anxiety And Distress

Obsessions and compulsions are often accompanied by feelings of anxiety, fear, guilt, or disgust. The need to perform compulsions to reduce anxiety or prevent a feared outcome. The anxiety can be intense and lead to emotional distress, impacting a person's overall well-being and quality of life.

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Causes Of OCD

Here are some causes of OCD listed by Kataria:

Genetic Factors

OCD often runs in families, implying a hereditary component. Individuals who have a first-degree relative with OCD (such as a parent or sibling) are more likely to develop the disorder. However, specific genes associated with OCD have not been identified yet.

Brain Structure and Function

Certain areas of the brain, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, caudate nucleus, and anterior cingulate cortex, may be involved in the development of OCD symptoms. These brain regions are associated with decision-making, error detection, and emotional regulation.

Neurotransmitter Imbalance

An imbalance in these neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin, is thought to contribute to the development of OCD.

Environmental Factors

Certain environmental factors may trigger or exacerbate OCD symptoms in individuals who are already predisposed to the disorder. Traumatic events, such as abuse, accidents, or illness, may contribute to the onset of OCD. 

Cognitive Factors

Certain patterns of thinking and beliefs may contribute to the development and maintenance of OCD. For example, individuals with OCD may have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of harm or danger, leading to excessive worry and the need for repetitive behaviours to alleviate anxiety. Additionally, perfectionism and a need for control are common traits in individuals with OCD.

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Treatment Of OCD

Kataria highlighted, "The treatment of OCD typically involves a combination of therapy, medication, and self-help strategies. It's important to note that treatment should be tailored to each individual's needs, and it's recommended to consult with a mental health professional for a comprehensive evaluation and personalised treatment plan."

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

One specific type of CBT that is often used is called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). ERP involves gradually exposing the person to obsessive thoughts or situations that trigger anxiety (exposure) and then resisting the urge to perform compulsive behaviours (response prevention). This helps reduce anxiety and end the loop of obsessions and compulsions over time.


Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are frequently used to treat OCD symptoms. These medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, which can help reduce anxiety and obsessive thoughts. It's important to work closely with a psychiatrist or healthcare provider to find the right medication and dosage that works best for each individual.

Other Therapy Approaches

In some cases, other therapy approaches may be used alongside or instead of CBT. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), focuses on accepting intrusive ideas and learning to live in accordance with personal beliefs. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which combines components of CBT with mindfulness and emotional regulation techniques, are examples of such therapies.

Support Groups

Joining a support group, either in-person or online, can provide a sense of community and understanding. Sharing experiences, challenges, and coping strategies with others who have OCD can be helpful and provide additional support.

What Are Self-Help Strategies

Kataria added that alongside therapy and medication, individuals with OCD can engage in self-help strategies to manage symptoms. These may include stress reduction techniques (such as mindfulness or meditation), establishing a structured routine, maintaining a healthy lifestyle (exercise, sleep, and nutrition), and learning and utilising relaxation techniques.

It's important to remember that recovery from OCD takes time and patience. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms effectively and improve overall functioning and quality of life.

How Does OCD Impact Mental Health?

OCD can have a significant impact on mental health, causing distress, anxiety, and interference with daily functioning. Here are some ways in which OCD can impact mental health:

Interference with Daily Functioning

OCD symptoms can significantly interfere with a person's ability to function in their daily life. The time and energy spent on obsessions and compulsions can disrupt work or school performance, relationships, and social activities. Individuals with OCD may find it challenging to concentrate, make decisions, or complete tasks due to their preoccupation with their obsessions and compulsions.

Negative Emotional States

The distressing nature of OCD can lead to negative emotional states, such as frustration, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Individuals with OCD may feel frustrated by their inability to control their thoughts and behaviours. 

Impact On Relationships

OCD can strain relationships with family, friends, and partners. Obsessions and compulsions can be difficult for others to understand, leading to frustration, misunderstandings, or strained interactions. Your close ones may have difficulty providing appropriate support or may become frustrated by the impact of OCD on the person's life and relationship dynamics.

Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions

OCD often co-occurs with other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, or eating disorders. The presence of multiple conditions can complicate the experience and treatment of OCD, requiring a comprehensive approach to address all the symptoms and promote overall mental health.

How To Distinguish OCD?

Kataria said, "Distinguishing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) from other conditions or experiences can be challenging, as there may be overlapping symptoms or similarities with other mental health conditions. However, there are some key features that can help in distinguishing OCD". 

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Presence of Obsessions and Compulsions
  • Frequency and Intensity: In OCD, the obsessions and compulsions are persistent, frequent, and intense. They are not fleeting or occasional thoughts or behaviours but significantly impact a person's life and cause distress. 
  • Intrusive and Uncontrollable: OCD obsessions are intrusive, meaning they come into the person's mind without their intentional control and are often unwanted. The person may recognise that these thoughts are irrational, excessive, or unnecessary but still find it challenging to suppress them. 
  • Impact on Thoughts and Beliefs: Individuals with OCD often experience doubt, uncertainty, and distorted beliefs related to their obsessions. They may feel a strong need to prevent harm, have excessive concerns about cleanliness or contamination, or engage in superstitious thinking. 


It is important to differentiate OCD from other mental health conditions that may have similar symptoms. For example, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves excessive worrying and anxiety but does not have the specific obsessions and compulsions seen in OCD. It's essential to consider the full range of symptoms, their impact on functioning, and the specific nature of the obsessions and compulsions when distinguishing OCD from other conditions.