Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts. Compulsions are unwanted, intrusive behaviors. While they can occur independently, obsessions are usually accompanied by compulsions. The origins of OCD are unclear, but it seems to be a result of both internal chemical states and external environmental triggers.

Obsessive thoughts produce so much anxiety that they disrupt a person’s ability to carry out everyday activities. They are often irrational and very disturbing, such as thoughts of harming one’s child or of causing a global disaster. In order to forestall these awful outcomes, the person adopts a compulsive behavior as a sort of magical charm against what they fear may occur.

Common compulsive behaviors include counting and checking. A person may, for example, turn a light switch on and off three times before leaving every room. Another may feel compelled to return to the stove repeatedly to make sure all the burners are turned off. There is a broad range of obsessions and compulsions, but they are all characterized by a gripping anxiety that can only be relieved by performing the compulsion. OCD can consume a person’s life to the point that they spend hours every day performing compulsions, causing them to lose jobs, homes and family relationships.

Obsessions and compulsions require a different mode of therapy than many other disorders. Because they are not rooted in one’s life history and are very specific responses, treatment is a matter of directly targeting the triggers for the intrusive thoughts and behaviors and counteracting them.

Treatment is conducted by identifying the circumstances that trigger an obsessive thought or compulsive behavior. These circumstances are reproduced during therapy and the patient is taught relaxation techniques to counter the anxiety. As fear is replaced by calm, the obsessive thoughts recede and the need for the corresponding compulsive behaviors dissolves.

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