What is OCD?

OCD is a neuropsychological disorder involving either obsessions, compulsions, or both. Approximately 1-2% of the population suffers from OCD, and it is a highly treatable disorder, responding well to cognitive behavioral therapy.

The term “OCD” has worked its way into popular vocabulary, but usually when people talk about OCD, they’re not really talking about OCD. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts that are difficult to control, and cause marked distress. Compulsions are rituals or behaviors designed to neutralize the obsessions, or to provide reduction in anxiety.  Having one or both results in a diagnosis of OCD.

The cognitive behavioral model provides an explanation for what causes OCD, and what factors maintain it. Obsessions are thoughts that people learn to fear. For instance, a religious person may learn to fear sexual thoughts because he perceives the thoughts to be in conflict with his morals. Or someone may learn to fear thoughts of car accidents, because she may believe that thinking these thoughts makes it more likely that a car accident will happen. The more threatening the thought is perceived to be, the more anxiety it will produce. Many people cope with this anxiety by “talking themselves down,” or considering whether the thoughts are actually dangerous, both of which can be healthy ways of dealing with intrusive thoughts. Other people cope by trying to block or control the thought. The problem with this latter approach is that it doesn’t work. In fact, the more you attempt controlling a thought, the more problematic it becomes. As people struggle with their thoughts, the thoughts become more prominent, such that people feel they are totally out of control of their minds. This is a simplified model of how obsessions develop.

Compulsions are created and maintained due to being continually reinforced. A feeling of anxiety due to wondering if the stove is on may prompt you to check the stove. When you find that it is off, the anxiety dissipates, and you feel a sense of relief. This is what is known as reinforcement. If this kind of checking is your primary way of coping with anxiety, you will engage in checking again and again to reduce uncomfortable feelings. Each time you engage in the checking behavior, or some other ritual, anxiety diminishes, making you more likely to do it again in the near future. Oftentimes, compulsions arise as a way of getting relief from the anxiety that obsessions cause.

Cognitive behavioral therapy targets all of the factors maintaining symptoms of OCD until they are no longer problematic. At Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles, we specialize in anxiety disorders like OCD. Call or email today for an appointment.