Traits of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The traits of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) include having obsessive thoughts that are troubling and persistent and engaging in repetitive behaviors that are nearly impossible to control or lessen. OCD causes these symptoms to a degree that takes up a significant portion of a person’s time. The symptoms also cause a person with OCD a great deal of distress and anxiety. The thoughts and behaviors make it difficult to function normally, impairing work, academics, social life, family responsibilities, and other areas of someone’s life.

OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a mental health condition that should be taken very seriously. It causes disturbing obsessive thoughts that are difficult or impossible to shake, as well as compulsive behaviors that are often repetitive and time-consuming. The thoughts and behaviors can make life challenging, taking a lot of time and causing a person to be unable to function normally in many ways.

The traits of OCD are not difficult to recognize, but it is important to get a real diagnosis from a mental health professional. There are other conditions with symptoms that overlap with or are similar to those of OCD. Only a psychiatrist or other professional can truly determine if someone has OCD. This diagnosis is important, because it can lead to effective and successful treatment—often in a long-term care facility—that can help a patient learn to manage their symptoms.

OCD Causes Obsessive Thoughts

One of the two characteristic traits of OCD is the presence of obsessions. These are thoughts that a person cannot control or stop. Everyone experiences something like this at times. It is normal to sometimes think about something excessively, but ultimately most people can stop themselves or distract their thoughts and focus on something else. For someone with OCD it is nearly impossible to stop the obsessive thoughts.

Not only are these thoughts difficult or impossible to control, they are also disturbing or troubling. The content of the thoughts can be anything, but they are always negative and cause a person discomfort, distress, fear, or anxiety. Although each person is different and may have completely unique obsessions, there are some typical patterns that many people with OCD fall into:

  • Fear of causing someone harm
  • Fear that harm will come to a loved one, sometimes in a specific way
  • Persistent images that are violent, graphic, or sexual and disturbing
  • Fear of losing control and doing or saying something inappropriate
  • A strong need to have objects ordered in a certain way
  • An overwhelming preoccupation with symmetry, patterns, or superstitions
  • Fear of being contaminated by germs or chemicals
  • Doubts about one’s own morality or fear of sinning
  • Fear of having failed to complete something
  • Intense doubts about having done something, such as turned off the stove

The obsessive thoughts caused by OCD are rarely rational, and most people with this condition know that their fears and worries are unfounded. And still they cannot control or stop them. The fact that they are irrational does not help a person with OCD stop or distract from the troubling thoughts.

OCD Causes Compulsive Behaviors

The other distinguishing trait of OCD is the presence of compulsive behaviors. These are actions or behaviors that a person feels like they have to do; they feel compelled to engage in them. As with obsessive thoughts, a person with OCD realizes that there is no logic to completing these often-repetitive behaviors, and yet they cannot stop doing them.

Compulsive behaviors caused by OCD have a few different purposes: they may be used to stop the troubling and obsessive thoughts; they can be used to alleviate the stress or anxiety caused by obsessions; and they can be used to prevent something bad from happening, typically something that makes up the content of the obsessive thoughts.

These are the reasons that someone with OCD engages in the compulsive behaviors, but it does not work. There may be some temporary relief from anxiety, from fear, and from the difficult thoughts, but the effect does not last. A compulsive behavior is in a way a coping mechanism, but one that is unhealthy and largely ineffective.

As with obsessive thoughts, a compulsive behavior could be anything. It may be directly related to the thoughts or may be completely unrelated. These behaviors are unique to the person who struggles with OCD, but there are common patterns, just as there are with obsessions:

  • Excessive hand washing
  • Counting words
  • Finding patterns or symmetry
  • Ordering and arranging objects
  • Checking something multiple times, such as a window to be sure it is shut
  • Seeking out constant reassurance, that someone is safe for instance
  • Excessive praying or use of mantras
  • Superstitious behaviors, such as avoiding stepping on cracks
  • Specific body movements, like touching fingertips to each other a specific number of times

Obsessive Thoughts and Compulsive Behaviors are Time-Consuming

It is possible to be diagnosed with OCD and have only the obsessive thoughts. However, many people experience the obsessions and also engage in compulsive behaviors. In some cases a person may have the behaviors but not the thoughts. Or, in some instances one or the other may dominate. Regardless of which dominates, or if one is not present at all, what the thoughts and behaviors have in common is that they take up a lot of time in a person’s life.

This is one of the criteria used to diagnose OCD. It is possible for someone to have occasional or even regular obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, but they may be easier to control or may not dominate a person’s time and life. If someone truly has OCD, the behaviors and thoughts are time-consuming, not just an occasional or short-lived issue.

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The Symptoms of OCD Cause Distress

Another trait and diagnostic criteria of OCD is that the thoughts and the behaviors cause significant distress. The thoughts may cause a person a great deal of fear, for example. Fearing that a loved one will be in a car accident can be intense and can also cause stress and anxiety. Obsessions over completeness or order can also cause serious stress and worry over whether something has been done correctly or if objects are not in the right order.

Often it is the thoughts that cause the most distress, and the purpose of the compulsive behaviors is to relieve that distress. However, the behaviors can also cause stress, anxiety, and other emotions. Because they take up so much time and a person feels compelled to do them, being unable to complete the behaviors can trigger a lot of anxiety and distress.

OCD Traits Cause Dysfunction

A very important, final trait of OCD is that a person with this condition experiences significant impairment in one or more areas of his or her life. There are consequences of being unable to shake difficult thoughts and to spending a lot of time on compulsive behaviors. The thoughts make it challenging to focus on anything else, and the behaviors take time away from other tasks and activities. Some of the possible complications and impairments that OCD can cause include:

  • Being unable to focus on school work and subsequent poor performance
  • Struggling at work because of lack of focus or time spent on compulsions
  • Financial problems because of an inability to keep a job
  • Difficulties in relationships because of time spent on behaviors and preoccupations
  • Physical health problems, such as rash or broken skin from excessive hand washing
  • Substance abuse or addiction because of use of drugs or alcohol to cope
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Generally low quality of life

The Traits of OCD Can Be Managed

Diagnosable OCD can be severe, and the traits of this condition can cause serious distress and dysfunction. It can make living a normal life nearly impossible, but there is hope for anyone struggling with OCD. Even someone with severe symptoms can learn to manage them and restore function and quality of life. Successful management depends on a commitment to dedicated, focused treatment.

For many people living with OCD, residential treatment plans offer the most effective solution to managing the condition. Residential care allows a patient to devote all their time and energy to treatment, which includes intensive therapy that can be distressing initially. Behavioral and exposure therapies are the main components of treatment. In residential care this treatment can be supplemented with alternative and creative therapies, social support and group therapy, lifestyle changes, nutrition, exercise, and other strategies that improve the effectiveness of care.

Anyone struggling with the characteristic signs of OCD needs to get a professional diagnosis. With that diagnosis, individualized treatment can be planned and implemented. With good care, someone with this condition can learn to live with it and to manage and control the difficult obsessions and compulsive behaviors that are running their lives.