Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

If you or your loved one are struggling with OCD, Vermilion is here to help. Learning about OCD can help you or your loved one manage its symptoms.

Understanding OCD

Learn about OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, referred to more commonly as OCD, is a mental health disorder in which individuals experience chronic and persistent patterns of unwanted thoughts that they are unable to ignore or get rid of, despite desperately wanting to do so. The anxiety that these people experience becomes so overwhelming that they quickly discover that they are no longer able to function appropriately in many areas of their lives. The urges and images that flood the minds of these individuals can be so disturbing that they are unable to focus on anything else. The compulsive behaviors that these individuals feel compelled to perform are likewise overwhelming and can hinder their ability to participate in the normal activities of everyday life. Sadly, people with OCD feel powerless to stop their behaviors and to control their thoughts, ultimately causing them to feel hopeless about their future.   However, those who seek treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder have a greater chance of eliminating these negative behaviors and regaining control over their life.


OCD statistics

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that 1% of the American population struggles with the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD presents in equal prevalence amongst men and women, and the average age of onset is believed to be 19. However, research has shown that 25% of OCD cases have presented by age 14. Additionally, children as young as 3 years old have been known to exhibit identifiable signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for OCD

As is true for most, if not all, mental disorders, a combination of genetic, physical, and environmental factors are said to play a role in the development of OCD. The most prominently cited causes include:

Genetic: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a form of severe anxiety and, because genetics play a role in the development of a person’s temperament and personality, it can be hypothesized that the genes that impact one’s temperament can lead an individual to be more susceptible to experiencing anxiety tendencies. Yet, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), research has yet to provide conclusive evidence that explains why some people develop OCD while others do not.

Physical: Chemical imbalances in the brain can affect one’s vulnerability to developing OCD. When imbalanced, neurotransmitters, which are chemicals responsible for transmitting messages throughout the various parts of the brain, become incapable of sending appropriate amounts of serotonin to the areas of the brain that are responsible for recognizing and managing a sense of well-being, allowing a person to experience the onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Environmental: Many professionals in the field believe that certain environmental factors can trigger the development of intense anxiety, including OCD. For example, people who have been abused may begin participating in compulsive behaviors as an unconscious means of trying to forget about their traumatic experiences. Their minds become so consumed by these compulsions that they can overrule the thoughts of the trauma, temporarily pushing it out of their minds. Additionally, in some cases, growing up or spending a significant amount of time in a chaotic environment can lead to the development of ritualistic behaviors as people try to grasp onto something that they can have control over. However, these individuals can quickly lose this sense of control as the rituals turn into the obsessions that are characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of other mental illnesses
  • Uninvolved or absent parents
  • Being the victim of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and/or neglect
  • Excessive levels of stress
  • Going through drastic life changes over which one has no control
  • Familial discord
  • Relationship problems
  • Lacking a support system
  • Death of a loved one

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of OCD

The symptoms of OCD are typically separated by type, identified as obsessive or compulsive. Individuals who have obsessive-compulsive disorder may display obsessive symptoms more prominently that compulsive symptoms, or vice versa. Some individuals may experience both types interchangeably. The ADAA provides the following examples of symptoms that may be indicative of the fact that a person has OCD:

Compulsive symptoms: While individuals do not want to perform the behaviors typical of compulsive symptoms, they feel helpless to stop. If these behaviors are not completed, the person will experience increasing levels of anxiety.

  • Hoarding behaviors (having extreme difficulty throwing away useless items)
  • Consistently rearranging things
  • Touching things repeatedly (e.g., having to touch a door knob multiple times before physically opening the door)
  • Experiencing an inability to stop repeating a phrase, a name, or an activity (e.g., having to turn a light switch off and on multiple times before exiting a room)
  • Eating food in a certain order or pattern
  • Irrational checking and then re-checking that certain tasks have been completed (e.g., repeatedly checking that the stove is turned off or that the doors are locked)
  • Participating in behaviors excessively and chronically, including things such as excessive cleaning, repeatedly washing one’s hands, or repeatedly bathing

Obsessive symptoms: The obsessions that people with OCD experience are intrusive, unwanted, and can be overwhelming and all-consuming, taking away their ability to focus on anything else.

  • Feeling overly and unnecessarily responsible for others
  • Aggressive impulses – these impulses tend to take the form of images in one’s mind but do not always manifest in the individual acting out on those thoughts
  • Experiencing chronic and irrational worry about germs, dirt, or of becoming contaminated in some way
  • Inappropriate, distasteful, and unwanted sexual or religious images and thoughts
  • Excessive and irrational concerns about the arrangement, order, and/or symmetry of different items


Effects of OCD

When left untreated, the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder will likely continue to intensify. From its onset, OCD can elicit extreme disruption in an individual’s life and, if allowed to worsen, the effects of this disorder can be devastating and debilitating. Examples of such effects may include:

  • Poor job performance, leading to unemployment
  • Poor school performance, leading one to drop out of school
  • Developing a dependency on drugs and/or alcohol
  • Social isolation
  • Self-injury
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

OCD and co-occurring disorders

People who struggle with OCD are also known to suffer from a co-existing mental health disorder as well. The most common disorders reported to occur alongside obsessive-compulsive disorder can include:

  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobia
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Tourette’s disorder / tic disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder