OCD Definition: What Is OCD & Is It a Mental Illness?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Definitions

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a type of anxiety disorder that affects both thoughts and behaviors. If you watched the film “As Good As It Gets,” you may be familiar with the OCD definition Hollywood created. A superficial OCD definition might include being neat or organized, or even perfectionistic, but to truly understand this disorder and those who struggle with it, you need go deeper.

What Are the Symptoms of OCD?

OCD symptoms include a specific type of unwanted thoughts, called obsessions, and a set of behaviors, called compulsions, that people with OCD feel they have to do to manage their anxiety. Anxiety is at the root of both obsessions and compulsions.


  • Are unwanted thoughts that you feel you cannot control.
  • Often have a theme, such as fear of being dirty or full of germs.
  • May focus on needing things to appear symmetrical, or in some way mathematically organized (e.g. in groupings of a certain number or multiples of that number).
  • Are upsetting or distressing, and create fear or disgust. Your own thoughts horrify or terrify you and you feel as if you cannot make them stop.


  • Are behaviors that you do as a way of trying to make the obsessive thoughts or distressing feelings stop.
  • Are often related to the theme of the obsessions. For example, if you have obsessive thoughts about being contaminated with germs, hand-washing is a common compulsion.
  • Relieve anxiety briefly. The purpose of doing the compulsive activity – whether it’s washing your hands or checking a doorknob to make sure it is locked – is to reduce your anxiety. Engaging in the compulsive activity works, and you feel a little bit better for a little while. Then the anxiety builds and you feel the need to engage in the compulsion again.
  • Are obvious to loved ones, family members, or friends. For some people with OCD, this causes even more distress. Many people with OCD feel embarrassed and ashamed of their symptoms and feel as if they “should” be able to control their obsessions and compulsions, but cannot.

While many people experience some mild obsessions or compulsions during times of increased stress, OCD is not the same as having an offbeat habit. An important part of the OCD definition used by clinical professionals has to do with the degree of interference in normal life activities that the obsessions and compulsions cause. In order to be diagnosed with OCD, the symptoms you experience must significantly interrupt your day. At least some OCD definitions require one hour per day be spent on your rituals. Managing your symptoms should take up a significant amount of time even when you are not actively engaged in your compulsions.

Treatment for OCD?

If you are haunted by unwanted thoughts and compulsive behaviors, see your doctor. OCD is often diagnosable by a primary care physician, but if there are doubts or complexities in your case, you may be referred to a psychiatrist. Effective treatments exist.

  • Medications: A number of different medications are known to be effective in easing the symptoms of OCD. Most of these are well tolerated, with few side effects. Some of the most commonly prescribed medications for OCD are antidepressants that work on neurotransmitters.
  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a specific type of “talk therapy” in which you learn to regain control of our thoughts. You’ll learn about the relationship among thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and will practice being in control of your thoughts. Combining medications and CBT is frequently recommended.

OCD can be a debilitating mental illness, but even in severe cases, there are reasons to be hopeful and positive. People with OCD can feel better and function well with the support of good treatment.




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