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Study Notes

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), like phobias, is classified as an anxiety disorder and has two main components: obsessions and compulsions. Here, we discuss the behavioural, emotional and cognitive characteristics of OCD.

Obsessions are reoccurring and persistent thoughts.

Obsessive thoughts are not based on reality, for example, a sufferer may believe that germs and bacteria exist everywhere, which cause feelings of anxiety.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviours.

The compulsions are physical urges to perform actions, for example repetitive hand-washing, in order to reduce the feelings of anxiety, caused by the obsessive thoughts.

70% of OCD sufferers experience both obsessions and compulsions combined. However, 20% experience just obsessions alone and 10% experience just compulsions alone.

Behavioural characteristics

The behavioural component of OCD centres on the compulsive behaviour and for sufferers of OCD, compulsions have two properties.

Firstly, compulsions are repetitive in nature and sufferers will often feel compelled to repeat a behaviour, for example, repetitive hand washing.

Secondly, compulsions are used to manage or reduce anxiety, for example, the excessive hand washing is caused by an excessive fear of germs and bacteria and is therefore a direct response to the obsession.

Emotional characteristics

The emotional characteristics of OCD are mainly characterised by anxiety which is caused by the obsessions, however some sufferers of OCD also experience depression.

Obsessions are persistent and/or forbidden thoughts and ideas, which cause high levels of anxiety in OCD sufferers.

Furthermore, OCD can often lead to depression, as the anxiety experienced can often result in a low mood and loss of pleasure in everyday activities (see above), because everyday activities are interrupted by obsessive thoughts and repetitive compulsions.

Cognitive characteristics

Obsessive thoughts are the main cognitive feature of OCD. Examples of reoccurring thoughts include:

Fear of contamination, by dirt or germs; Fear of safety, by leaving doors or windows; religious fears, from being immoral; perfectionism, a fear of not being the best.

For sufferers of OCD, these thoughts occur over and over again.

Some sufferers of OCD adopt cognitive strategies to deal with their obsessions. For example, suffers with religious obsessions may pray over and over, to reduce their feelings of being immoral. Furthermore, sufferers of OCD know that their obsessions and compulsions are irrational and experience selective attention directed towards the anxiety-generating stimuli (similar to the selective attention found in phobias).

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