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Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

When it’s not being portrayed in cartoonish extremes on TV, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) as a term is often thrown around light-heartedly as people discuss their various quirks and habits.

This creates a distorted perception of an often hidden condition that can have a debilitating impact on people’s lives. Clichéd, visible symptoms like repeatedly flicking light switches on and off don’t tell the whole story of what may be a completely inner struggle. Thankfully, it’s a struggle that can be managed once it is properly understood.

So what is OCD?

OCD causes people to have obsessive thoughts and engage in compulsive behaviours. These thoughts are not just repetitive but unpleasant, bringing with them feelings of distress. This leads to compulsions – either physical or mental acts – carried out to temporarily relieve the anxiety.

Common obsessions include an irrational need for symmetry or order, excessive hygiene concerns, unreasonable fears of hurting others, unreasonable fears for the safety of yourself or belongings, or an inability to discard useless items. Obsessions are not limited to these but are typically automatic, frequent and hard to control.

While compulsions can manifest as excessive washing and cleaning, touching, arranging and hoarding, they can also be mental behaviours such as counting or repeating phrases. They can exist without obsessional thoughts but frequently intertwine. There is no consensus on the exact cause of OCD. Evidence does suggest that the condition runs in families and that difficult life events can act as triggers.

A common condition

It is estimated that as many as 3 in 100 adults have OCD, with the figure being 5 in 100 for children and teens. Though onset usually occurs in early adulthood, OCD can reveal itself at any time. These symptoms can range from mild to severe, taking minutes out of people’s days or consuming their daily life.


People can be reluctant to report symptoms, or even make efforts to conceal them. It is important to remember that OCD is simply a long-term health condition, like diabetes, and that there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

If you know someone with symptoms, playing along with behaviours only reinforces them. Instead, offer productive support. Gently talk to them about visiting a GP to get them on the road to a more manageable life.

A screening will involve answering the Zohar-Fineberg questionnaire to determine the likelihood of OCD. It should be noted that people without OCD can score positively on it.

There are three levels of severity. Mild functional impairment means obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour takes up less than an hour of your day. Moderate functional impairment is 1 to 3 hours of your day. Severe functional impairment is anything over that.


People with mild OCD are treated with a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). For more severe cases, a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help rebalance the brain’s chemistry alongside the therapy. About 80% of people will respond to the initial treatment. Specialists can assess your situation and tailor treatment to best meet your needs.

As always, an appointment with your GP is the first step towards diagnosing and dealing with any potential condition.

If you’re interested in more articles about mental health, visit the Vhi Health Hub.