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Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

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OCD is an anxiety disorder, characterised by the presence of recurring intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses – obsessions and repetitive behavioural and mental rituals – compulsions. People with OCD are usually aware that their symptoms are irrational and excessive, but they find the obsessions uncontrollable and the compulsions difficult or impossible to resist.

What are the symptoms?

Obsessions and compulsions are distressing, exhausting, take up a lot of time, and can significantly interfere with the person's family and social relationships, daily routines, education or working life. Common obsessions include: fear or contamination from germs, dirt, for example; fears of harm to self or others; intrusive sexual thoughts or images; concerns with symmetry, illness or religious issues; an intense, irrational fear of everyday objects and situations (phobia). Common compulsions include: washing; cleaning; checking; hoarding; touching; counting; and repeating routine activities and actions.

What causes OCD?

The causes are not fully understood. It is likely that each person's OCD is the result of several interacting factors, including genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, hormonal changes, and personality traits.

How many people develop OCD?

About three in every hundred people will develop OCD at some time in their lives - that is more than 450,000 Australians.

How is OCD treated?

Treatment can help people manage obsessions and compulsions, to reduce or even eliminate the symptoms of OCD. The most effective treatment is psychological therapy. A skilled and experienced clinician, support, and education about how to help yourself are also likely to produce the best outcome.

  • Psychological therapy. A doctor, psychologist or other health professional talks with the person about their symptoms, and discusses alternative ways of thinking about and coping with them.
  • Medication. Certain medications assist the brain to restore its usual chemical balance and help control the obsessions and compulsions. When symptoms are particularly resistant to psychological therapy, medication may be prescribed for a while.
  • Community support programs. Support groups provide an environment where people with OCD and their families can meet to give and receive support. Information is provided, along with self-help and coping strategies. Understanding and acceptance by the community is also very important.

How do I find out more?

It is important to ask your doctor about any concerns you have. SANE Australia also produces a range of easy-to-read publications and multimedia resources on mental illness.

For more information about this topic see:


Living with OCD

The SANE Anxiety Disorders DVD Kit includes people affected, and those who care for them, talking about symptoms, treatments, and what you can do to help yourself.

The SANE Guide to Medication and other Treatments explains how all the different aspects of treatment work, by looking at clinical care, medication, support in the community and helping yourself.
Last updated: 14 November, 2016
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Last updated: 14 November, 2016

Busting the myths about OCD

Media representations of obsessive compulsive disorder are pretty misleading. Let's bust the myths with the facts about OCD.

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