OCD Spectrum Disorder Research Articles & Resources

Elizabeth Michael
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition in which a person becomes hyper-focused on or "obsessed" with unwanted mental images, thoughts, urges, or ideas. (1) These obsessions are generally repetitive in nature and can be highly upsetting. Often, OCD-related obsessions do not match with the individual's true nature or personality.
OCD spectrum disorder is a term used to describe related mental health conditions in which certain symptoms such as repetitive thoughts and actions are similar to those of OCD. (2) Some common OCD spectrum disorders include:

  • Hoarding disorder: Causes people to compulsively hoard items with seemingly little to no value
  • Trichotillomania (hair pulling): Causes sufferers to repetitively pull out their hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes, which can lead to significant hair loss and permanent bald spots
  • Excoriation: Also known as skin-picking disorder, excoriation causes individuals to repetitively pick at perceived skin issues such as blemishes or moles

Most people with OCD and OCD spectrum disorder understand that their fears and obsessions are irrational, but the accompanying anxiety is often so great that they simply cannot let the irrational ideas go. To neutralize the anxiety that accompanies OCD thoughts, sufferers perform compulsions or rituals that range from repeating actions and checking and rechecking things to ruminating on the obsession for extended periods of time.

Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorders — In The News
Scans May Spot People Who'll Benefit From Surgery for OCD

TUESDAY, Dec. 23, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Though most patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be successfully treated with medication and therapy, between 10 percent to 20 percent have a form of the illness that doesn't respond to standard care, experts say. However, patients with this so-called "refractory OCD"... Read More

People With OCD May Have Higher Odds for Schizophrenia: Study

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 3, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may be at higher risk for schizophrenia, a new study suggests. Still, the findings shouldn't cause undue worry in people with OCD, one expert said. "In the general population, about 1 percent of people are diagnosed with... Read More

Most People Have Unwanted Thoughts, International Study Finds

FRIDAY, May 9, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Do you ever feel a bit tortured by the idea that you left the iron on or caught a dread disease in that dirty restroom? Ever have a random thought about hurting someone even though you're not a violent person? You're far... Read More

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What Causes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

The exact cause of OCD isn't fully understood, but experts believe the disorder may be linked to genetic factors and abnormalities within the brain. (3) In some cases, OCD is also thought to run in families. People often start developing symptoms of OCD as teenagers or young adults, but they may begin in early childhood. Research also points to the possibility of both adult and childhood OCD stemming from childhood abuse and trauma. (4)
Sometimes referred to as "the doubting disease," OCD often comes with excessive doubt, fear, worry, and superstitions. While it's totally natural to experience these feelings, in people with OCD, the feelings and emotions are excessive. Experts believe that brains in individuals with OCD process and communicate information incorrectly, which causes sufferers to become stuck on ideas and beliefs.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that's responsible for communication, and some experts suggest individuals with OCD have low levels of serotonin in their brains. (5) Low serotonin levels occur for a variety of reasons, ranging from hormonal changes and genetic factors to excessive stress. (6) However, it's important to note that, at present, there are no lab tests available to diagnose OCD, so the serotonin theory is just one of many possible causes.

What Are the Symptoms of OCD? Signs to Know:

OCD symptoms are characterized by obsessional thoughts and compulsive behaviors. (7) This means a person with the condition is likely to become obsessed with a thought, mental image, idea, or perceived urge. To rid themselves of the anxiety and distress caused by the obsession, sufferers act on compulsions and/or perform ritualistic behaviors.
Obsessional thoughts and fears in individuals with OCD include:

  • Fear of contamination and obsession with germs
  • Upsetting mental images of aggressive behaviors such as sexual and physical assault
  • Fears of harming oneself or harming others
  • Obsessions about order and symmetry
  • Religious fears and irrational concerns about 'blasphemous' thoughts

Signs of OCD related to compulsive behaviors and rituals include:

  • Repetitive checking: Checking behaviors include checking to make sure doors are locked, checking to make sure children and family members are safe, or repeatedly checking stoves, faucets, and electrical outlets to look for signs of danger
  • Avoidance behaviors: Hiding knives and sharp objects to prevent hurting others, abstaining from dating to avoid being sexually assaulted, and avoiding public restrooms to prevent contamination (8)
  • Compulsive hand-washing and cleaning: Common after exposure (or perceived exposure) to germs and contaminants (9)

Am I OCD? How Is OCD Diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with OCD, individuals must meet certain criteria:

  • Experiencing constant, recurring thoughts that cause marked anxiety and emotional distress
  • Spending more than an hour per day performing rituals or ruminating on their obsessions
  • Obsessions, anxiety, and compulsions that interfere with the patient's daily life and work
  • Those obsessions and compulsions are not caused by drugs, alcohol, or illicit substances (11)

What Is the Best Treatment for OCD?

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is considered one of the most effective types of OCD treatment. (12) Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is a form of CBT in which patients are exposed to their fears and obsessions under the care of a therapist. (13)
After the initial exposure, the patient must abstain from performing compulsive behaviors to reduce their anxiety. Over time, ERP therapy helps patients accept their obsessions as merely irrational thoughts that do not pose any type of threat. Sometimes, CBT therapy is used as the sole treatment for OCD, or it may be used in conjunction with OCD medications that help balance serotonin levels in the brain. (14)

How To Cope With an OCD Diagnosis

One way for a person to cope with an OCD diagnosis is to decide to fully commit to therapy and to follow the advice of their therapists. In most cases, experts consider OCD as a chronic condition with symptoms that can wax and wane over time. (14) However, with proper treatment, individuals diagnosed with OCD can manage their symptoms and move toward happiness and more balanced mental health.

How To Help Someone With OCD

It's important for family members and loved ones to educate themselves on OCD so they can truly understand what the patient may be going through. Being patient and supportive is also essential as the individual navigates therapy, as many OCD patterns are deeply ingrained. It can take time for someone to recover from OCD, and some people deal with symptoms that come and go throughout their lives.