By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.
Occurring in men and women with comparable frequency, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) affects about 2.2 million Americans 18 years or age and older — one percent of the adult population of the United States. Initial symptoms usually manifest themselves in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood, and median symptom onset is 19 years of age. One third of adults with OCD experience their first symptoms as children.
OCD is characterized by repetitive, intrusive, unwanted, and disturbing thoughts known as obsessions and by the performance of rituals known as compulsions — in an urgent attempt to control the anxiety that the obsessions generate.
Fear of social embarrassment, for example, could prompt someone with OCD to comb his or her hair so compulsively that the individual becomes unable to look away from the mirror. Thoughts of engaging in violence, bringing harm to loved ones, and having a persistent preoccupation with performing distasteful sexual acts or violating one’s religious beliefs are common obsessions. Common rituals include repeated hand-washing, counting, or touching objects (especially in a particular sequence).
People who have OCD may be preoccupied with order and symmetry, have trouble discarding things, and accumulate or hoard things they don’t need. Healthy people perform such rituals as repeatedly making sure the stove is off before leaving the house. People with OCD perform rituals that distress them, interfere with daily life, and provide no more than a temporary respite from their obsession-induced anxiety. Most people who have OCD are eventually enslaved by their own compulsions.
Research indicates that OCD may be a familial disorder. Many adults who have OCD recognize the futility of their actions, but children and some adults who have OCD are unaware that their behavior is unusual. The course of OCD can vary. Symptoms may emerge and disappear, ease or intensify, or prevent the individual from carrying out his or her responsibilities. Many people with OCD try to control their disorder by avoiding circumstances that trigger their obsessions or by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.