Mainstream media often paints an inaccurate picture of people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as pretty eccentric individuals who need to keep their environment clean, wash their hands excessively, and worry just about anything. While this stereotype has a grain of truth, it’s mostly based on assumptions, projections, and myths.

With 1-2% of people struggling with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in the U.S. alone, there’s no wonder why it’s one of the most misunderstood mental health issues. If you have been recently diagnosed with OCD, wish to educate yourself more, or have a loved one struggling with OCD, this article is for you. In today’s blog post, we take a closer look at the mechanisms behind obsessive-compulsive disorder, its symptoms, and available treatment. Keep reading to find out more!

OCD: Common Symptoms & Mechanisms

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by the presence of both obsessions (disturbing thoughts/images) and compulsions (rituals) performed in attempts to soothe the rising anxiety in response to obsessions. This mental health issue can often:

  • be very time-consuming, upsetting, and distressing,
  • make you feel like you have no control over your mind,
  • hinder your ability to fulfill your responsibilities at home, at school, or at your job,
  • significantly interfere with the quality of your life and relationships.

When it comes to the root cause of OCD, there’s no consensus. What we know is that genetics and the environment in which one lives seem to play a significant role, as this mental disorder often runs in families. Additionally, experiencing a profoundly stressful event can either trigger your OCD or make it a lot worse. This mental health issue is diagnosed in people of all ages, from preschoolers to teenagers to adults.

Some of the most common symptoms of OCD include:

In order to fully understand how this disorder works, let’s take a closer look at its two main mechanisms that can lock you in a vicious cycle of anxiety:


Have you been repeatedly haunted by an intrusive thought or a disturbing image that causes you significant distress? If so, chances are you’re experiencing obsessions.

How to recognize them precisely?

characteristics examples
  • unwanted
  • persistent
  • recurring
  • anxiety-inducing
  • upsetting
  • impossible to supress.
  • violent images of hurting your loved ones,
  • fear of contamination,
  • fixation with keeping things in a specific order.


Compulsions, otherwise referred to as rituals, result from the urge one feels to remedy their obsessions. By engaging in these ritualistic, repetitive behaviors or mental acts, people struggling with OCD attempt to reduce their anxiety caused by disturbing thoughts and/or prevent the obsession from happening in real life.

Among the most common compulsions, there are behaviors like:

  • excessive hand-washing,
  • repeating words in a particular order (either out loud or in one’s head)
  • repeated checking that the door is locked / the stove is turned off / different objects are in their designated place, etc.
  • performing a ritual at a specific time, place, and in a specific order (either overtly or discreetly).

The Vicious Cycle of Obsessions and Compulsions

Commonly misunderstood and perceived as a personal quirk, OCD can be highly detrimental to your mental well-being, trapping you in a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions. The truth is that this disorder is much more than just a handful of stressful thoughts or harmless rituals. It can lead to developing further mental health issues like anxiety, chronic stress, depression, eating disorders and so on.

Here’s an example to illustrate this mechanism:

Let’s say that you have a deeply rooted fear of getting in a car crash.Whenever the thought appears in your mind, you can see violent images, i.e., drivers speeding through a red light, running straight into you.

That, in turn, makes you feel increasingly anxious or even terrified and unsafe.

You’re noticing that your body has an adrenaline response, i.e., your palms are getting sweaty, you’re struggling to catch a breath, etc.

Engaging in negative self-talk and telling yourself that this obsession is stupid and you should get over it only makes everything worse.

To avoid such a life-threatening situation, you refuse to drive a car. Crossing a street or getting in a car as a passenger paralyzes you with fear.

To calm down, you tap your knees 20 times with each finger. Doing so might bring short-term relief (only when performed uninterrupted), yet sooner or later, your obsession appears again, either triggered by a stimulus like a car advertisement on the TV or appearing in your mind without an apparent reason. And the cycle repeats itself.

As a security measure, you decide:

  • not to use Uber or taxis,
  • not to get in your friends’s cars believing your presence will cause a disaster,
  • limit going out of your house.

Unfortunately, these rituals fail to guarantee your safety and strengthen your urge to perform them again. As a result, you might isolate yourself further and struggle with severe anxiety and/or relationship issues.


OCD: Treatment Options

The good news is that there’s treatment available for OCD consisting of two pillars: psychiatric medication and talk therapy.

The most commonly prescribed medications for OCD are SSRIs – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They help increase levels of serotonin, also known as the “feel good” hormone, restoring chemical balance in your brain. If you decide to take medication, it’s recommended to do it alongside psychotherapy , specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), which is the most effective treatment for OCD.

ERP boils down to getting exposed to the situation that elicits the most fear and reducing your compulsions step by step, gradually, at your own pace that feels safe. It includes:

  • psychoeducation,
  • techniques to question your irrational thoughts,
  • homework in between sessions.

While drugs can help you manage anxiety, therapy is an excellent opportunity to cope with your obsessions without performing compulsions and take charge of your life.

Don’t wait for your mental health issue to get better on its own – click here to contact Harbor Psychiatry and invest in your well-being today.