Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: what is it?

Included within the category of anxiety disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has characteristics that often catch people’s attention.

One of the great differences between this disorder and other anxiety disorders lies precisely in how symptoms are manifested. Normally the effects of anxiety are experienced in a very subjective and internal way. Therefore, you might be sitting next to a person who is suffering from anxiety and have no idea.

However, generally the compulsions derived from OCD are manifested as behaviors that attract a lot of attention. For example, washing your hands many times, counting numbers out loud, not being able to step on certain cracks in the floor, doing endless checks, etc … 

Is having an “obsession” the same as having OCD?

Although it is understandable why these two are sometimes confused, it important to note that not everyone who has an “obsession” also suffers from an anxiety disorder such as OCD.

In order to be diagnosed with OCD, one must meet certain clinical requirements. Often, compulsive behavior generates great discomfort for the person who suffers from OCD.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: what is it?

Understanding OCD

To understand what OCD is, we must first differentiate between its two fundamental elements: obsession and compulsion.

The obsession is characterized by an automatic, invasive thought full of negative content. One of the most common obsessions is thinking that everything is polluted, full of bacteria that can contaminate them and make them sick.

Furthermore, among these obsessive thoughts we also find what is called “magical thinking.”  These are invasive ideas that connect two facts that have no logical relationship. For example, “if I touch this part of the ground, all my loved ones will die.” Of course, this type of rationalization clashes with “rationality.” To help you understand it better, a psychologist could address a patient in the following way:

“Let’s do a quick exercise so that we can better understand this kind of thinking. I’m going to ask you to write down the name of the person you love most in the world. Take your time to think about that person before writing his/her name- think about your relationship, the good times, the affection you have for each other …

Ready? Written? Great, now I ask that next to the name you write the phrase ‘I hope he dies’ … Could you do it? Do you find it difficult? If we look at this from a strictly rational point of view we know that nothing will happen to them just because you wrote that. However, there is something within us that generates great discomfort during this exercise. Well, it is this something that we call ‘magical thinking’ and it is brought to the extreme in someone with OCD.”


Once the obsession of the patient is understood, the compulsion comes hand in hand.

Faced with the discomfort that the obsession produces, people with OCD need to do something to prevent the catastrophe from occurring. It is all about a need for control. Since they are not able to control obsessive ideas, they need to be able to control and counteract the pain that they might suffer.

The problem grows because eventually they are immersed in a “vicious cycle.” They perform the compulsion (counting, avoiding stepping on stripes, checking things many times, washing their hands …), which generates a brief moment of tranquility. It’s like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert. They crave this peace amid so much anxiety, so many times this compulsion “takes control” of the situation. Needing to yield to these constant compulsions makes it impossible for the person to lead a normal life. They spend much of their time engaged in these behaviors, they distance them from people and their jobs, and they begin to feel increasingly isolated and misunderstood.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: what is it?

Treating OCD

Have you identified with things you just read? If the answer is affirmative, the best solution is to put yourself in the hands of specialized help. It has been shown that the most effective treatment for OCD is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This is divided into two parts, one dedicated to compulsions and the other to obsessions.

In the treatment of obsessions we focus on exposing ourselves to these intrusive thoughts. It is not so much about rationalizing these ideas, since the person perceives them as irrational, but to decrease the power of the obsessions by having the people confront their fears. In a certain sense, treating OCD is similar to treating a phobia.

In the treatment of compulsions, what we do is called response prevention: we design behavioral programs aimed at avoiding the manifestation of those compulsions, reducing them until they disappear.

The treatment of OCD within psychology has a high degree of effectiveness, diminishing the symptoms in just a few months. It might seem scary or difficult at the beginning, but it’s definitely worth a try!

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