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What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

You might have a friend with a habit of correcting your grammar, and they always apologize by jokingly saying, "I'm so OCD about that!" But what is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)? In reality, OCD is a complex psychological disorder with varying levels of severity, and symptoms manifest in different ways. At its core, it's about obsessing over thoughts or actions in a compulsive way that impacts your ability to live life. It's far more complex than what you may see on TV.

Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Once believed to be rare, OCD is now recognized as a common disorder. About 2.2 million people have obsessive compulsive disorder, and it tends to be equally common among men and women. Although it's less common than post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, it's actually more prevalent than other disorders you may have heard of, like schizophrenia.

In the simplest of terms, OCD involves having obsessions in the form of unwanted and intrusive thoughts or fears that repeatedly occur. The person then often has compulsions or actions that they engage in to temporarily alleviate the thoughts. The compulsions don't have to make any sense in relation to the obsession; there's just an irrational need to do them. Examples of obsessive thoughts include doubting you've done something (like turning off the stove), fear of germs, fear of doing something inappropriate in public, or needing an extreme level of perfectionism (such as needing objects to be perfectly symmetrical). Examples of compulsions include frequent hand washing or cleaning, arranging items until they feel "right," frequently touching an item (like tapping a door over and over), or constantly avoiding something for fear of triggering an obsession.

You may be reading this and thinking, "I'm scared of germs" or "I need things to be arranged in a certain order." But just double-checking things from time to time doesn't mean you have OCD. Typically, someone with severe OCD can't control their thoughts and compulsions, even when they interfere with daily life, and may spend an hour a day or more on obsessive rituals.

Assessing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Severity

OCD ranges on a spectrum from mild to debilitating. The Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale is the most common measure of OCD severity. First, a specialist assesses what obsessions and compulsions a person has. Then the specialist uses a questionnaire to determine the severity of the person's OCD. The questions look at things like time spent on the obsessions and the level of interference. A final score of 0 to 40 rates a person's OCD from subclinical to extreme.

The severity of OCD depends on how much it interferes with your life. The amount of time you spend on an obsession or compulsion, whether it's mild or incapacitating, how much distress you feel about it, and whether you have any control over it all account for the severity. Some people have mild OCD that's manageable and barely interferes with daily life. But for others, it's very different. As one person with OCD explained, some people can just grit their teeth and power through their symptoms, while other people have OCD so severely that they can't even leave their home.

Despite what you may see on television, OCD is no laughing matter. For some, it can feel like it's taking over their lives. But there is help. If you feel like you might have OCD, see a therapist or your doctor for a diagnosis.

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