Kathleen Kawamura, PhD Clinical Psychologist
Kathleen Kawamura, PhDClinical Psychologist

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

OCD is characterized by a cycle of obsessions and compulsions accompanied by severe distress. OCD is no longer classified as an anxiety disorder, nevertheless anxiety is a primary component of the disorder. Disgust and guilt are other emotions that may be experienced. Many people can relate to superstitious beliefs or to being "obsessive" about cleanliness or safety, but OCD is when these beliefs and behaviors begin to interfere with one's life in that it takes up more than an hour each day, causes a significant  amount of distress, and impairs functioning in relationships, at school, at work, or in daily life.




Obsessions are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses that trigger intense distress. Obsessions are not the same as everyday worries in that oftentimes obsessions have little or no basis in terms of realistic probabilities of harm. Common obsessions include:


  • Fears of contamination
  • Fears of harming oneself or others
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts
  • Immoral thoughts/religious concerns
  • Hyperawareness of bodily sensations
  • Relationship doubts
  • The need to have things "just right"




Compulsions are routines or rituals that are meant to prevent or reduce the distress that comes from the obsessions, and unlike gambling or drinking, compulsions are not experienced as pleasurable but rather torturous and time consuming. Common compulsions include:


  • Washing and cleaning
  • Checking
  • Repeating
  • Arranging
  • Mental Compulsions (e.g., counting, praying, cancelling thoughts, mental review)
  • Reassurance seeking


The Obsessive Concerns Checklist provides a thorough list of common obsessions while the Compulsive Activities Checklist provides a thorough list of common compulsions. 


The Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale is also a list of common obsessions and compulsions along with questions to assess the severity of symptoms. 


These measures are not meant to diagnose OCD but can give an understanding of the typical thoughts and behaviors that may be causing distress.



The obsessions listed on the Obsessive Concerns Checklist are not specific to those with OCD, and in fact, most people in the general population acknowledge having had these same thoughts at some point in their lives. The thoughts may come uninvited, but for the most part, these thoughts have to be accessed purposefully such as for a creative writing project or when recalling a horror movie. For those who do not suffer from OCD, these thoughts may be seen as strange or even disturbing but nonetheless they are seen as just thoughts and not seen as particularly problematic. Therefore, these thoughts are not processed any further and are quickly forgotten.


An explanation for why we have these spontaneous thoughts is that our brains are equipped with an idea generator that allows us as humans to be creative or have insight for problem solving. It also enables us to imagine new ideas or invent something new. Some of these thoughts may be truly original ideas or they could be random connections to something we had heard of, seen, or imagined. These thoughts may also pop up because there is a part of us that believes we should NOT think these types of thoughts.


Findings have shown over and over that there are few differences between those with OCD and those without regarding the content of spontaneously generated thoughts. The difference is that for those who suffer from OCD:


  • Thoughts occur more frequently
  • Thoughts have a longer duration
  • Thoughts cause more intense distress
  • Greater importance is placed on the thoughts
  • Greater efforts are made to avoid, suppress, or remove these thoughts  


The goal in therapy is not to get rid of these thoughts, as the presence of these thoughts are normal. The goal is to shift the importance placed on the thoughts and the strategies to deal with the thoughts because these are areas that can be directly addressed. Then the duration of the thoughts and the distress around the thoughts should naturally decrease, and then finally the frequency of the thoughts should also decrease. As the thoughts become less frequent and less disturbing, it becomes easier to cope with any remaining thoughts as they come to mind.




The importance placed on a thought plays a major role in the distress caused by the thought. When the thoughts are appraised as being dangerous, immoral, disgusting, or meaningful, then a surge of anxiety, disgust, doubt, or discomfort follows. It is not surprising that harm obsessions often occur with gentle people, sexual obsessions occur with highly moral people, religious obsessions occur with religious people, and obsessions with mistakes occur with perfectionistic people. A typical appraisal of a thought might be, “This thought means I am in danger. I HAVE to know for certain what is going to happen or else something TERRIBLE will happen. I have to do something about this thought NOW.”




There appear to be common themes underlying these appraisals in those who suffer from OCD. They are: 

  • Inflated responsibility - the belief that one can prevent horribly negative outcomes
  • Overimportance of thoughts - a thought is considered very important just because it exists, usually because having the thought means the feared event is more likely to happen or having the thought is just as bad as the action
  • Importance of controlling one's thoughts - complete control of thoughts is possible and necessary
  • Overestimation of threats - the probability and severity of harm are overexaggerated
  • Intolerance of uncertainty - absolute certainty is necessary and coping with unpredictability and ambiguity causes much distress
  • Perfectionism - the belief that it is possible and necessary to not make any mistakes, that there are perfect solutions and that making a minor mistake will have catastrophic consequences

The Obsessional Beliefs Questionnaire is used to assess common beliefs about thoughts in those who suffer from OCD. 




In neurological terms, the brain learns that certain thoughts are paired with a fear response, and each time this pairing occurs, the stronger the connection becomes. A saying is, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." The pathway between certain thoughts and a fear response becomes tread in so that eventually the thought becomes an obsession that automatically triggers a fear response. Essentially, the obsessive thought triggers the amygdala (fear response system) which sets off a false alarm that sends a surge of anxiety through your body.


The fears associated with the thought creates a danger detection system that is now overly sensitive to any signs of an obsession that can trigger distress. Anxious anticipation, stress, fatigue, illness, excessive drinking or marijuana use, and genetic tendency can also contribute to an overly sensitive danger detection system that triggers a false alarm.


See the section on Understanding Anxiety for a more thorough description of the neurological explanations of anxiety.


The fear response will eventually dissipate on its own when your cortex (thinking brain) sends a message to your amygdala that you are no longer in danger. The problem with OCD is that after the initial obsession and anxiety response, there are often follow up statements such as seen in the Obsessional Beliefs Questionnaire above or "What-if" fears. These statements from your cortex send a danger message to your amygdala which will then continue to sound the alarm which then maintains the fear response. 




When great importance is attached to the presence of a thought or the content of the thought, then the thought is experienced as dangerous, disgusting, or unbearable. The natural protective response to these feelings is a desire to get rid of the thought, control the thought, or put the fear to rest in some way. Thought suppression, neutralization strategies, and avoidance behaviors are the most common coping strategies that contribute to the cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.


In the beginning, these coping behaviors lead to a decrease in distress, and because there is some relief, these behaviors become reinforced and are more likely to occur the next time the distressing thought or feelings are experienced. Eventually these behaviors become habits that feel automatic and uncontrollable. Unfortunately, in the long run, attempts to suppress, neutralize, or avoid the thoughts or feelings of fear: 


  • make the thought more likely to return
  • lead to MORE anxiety
  • do not work as well in relieving distress for any significant amount of time
  • do not allow baseline levels of anxiety return to original levels
  • do not directly address the source of the problem
  • create more problems in day-to-day living (emotional distress, relationship difficulties, professional consequences, health problems)


An increase in thoughts and fear likely occur because the efforts put into getting rid of or avoiding the thought or situation tells the brain that these thoughts or situations are important, meaningful, and dangerous. The brain then becomes fearful and alert, making it more likely for the thoughts to return, for baselines levels of anxiety to be higher, and for anxious response to be greater. This then strengthens the feeling that these thoughts need to be controlled. Because avoidant strategies do not directly address the source of the problem (the OCD), the cycle continues to spiral out of control creating additional problems.


Ultimately, the obsession and the anxiety are not the greatest problem, but rather it is the desire to avoid anxious feelings completely that becomes the biggest hurdle to living a full and meaningful life.



THOUGHT SUPPRESSION: The Paradoxical Effect


One common reaction to this surge of anxiety that accompanies the obsessive thought is to try to NOT think of the thought. The problem with this strategy is that there is a paradoxical effect where the more you try NOT to think of a thought, the more the thought will come to mind. For example, if you were asked to close your eyes and try to think of polar bears for 2 minutes, you will find that various thoughts and images of polar bears cross through our mind, sometimes disappearing and reappearing outside of your control.


Now, if you try to NOT think of polar bears for the next 2 minutes, you will find that your thoughts are interrupted by thoughts or images of polar bears. If you were asked to do it for 20 minutes and pay $100 each time the thought or image occurred, the stakes become higher, and the task becomes impossible at worst, exhausting at best. The reality is that we have little mental control over the thoughts that come into our mind and the more we attempt to control it, the worse the problem becomes.  




Compulsions are external behaviors or mental rituals that are also attempts to neutralize, avoid, or remove the distress caused by the obsessions. Because compulsions do provide some immediate relief, the behaviors become reinforced, meaning they are more likely to happen again in the future in response to distress. The problem with compulsions is that because of the polar bear effect described above, any attempts to remove or suppress the thoughts strengthens the importance placed on the thoughts making the thoughts more likely to return. This strategy, which seemed logical at first, becomes part of the problem.


Unfortunately, the relief provided by engaging in compulsions is often temporary and partial. The anxiety does not quite return to baseline, and when the thoughts returns, anxiety often returns with greater intensity. It is as if engaging in compulsions, confirms to the brain that the obsessions are dangerous or important and must be taken very seriously and with immediate action.


Another consequence is that compulsions, which are essentially responses to false alarms, do not allow the brain to learn that the thoughts or situations are not as dangerous as they seem and do not require immediate attention and also that the anxiety will eventually decrease all on its own and can be managed. 


On the other hand, if there is no avoidance, there is no partial decrease in anxiety, but there is a natural habituation curve where the anxiety first increases rapidly, plateaus, and then slowly decreases. This is the natural curve of the anxious response. With neutralization, there is never a chance to learn that the anxiety will decrease all on its own and that the feared consequence does not happen.




Another common coping strategy for dealing with fear is avoidance. Avoidance can include a wide variety of triggers such as situations, people, objects, information, physical sensations or emotional states, or thoughts. The problem is that efforts to avoid the trigger places greater importance on the thoughts that are being avoided. In addition, with avoidance, there is no learning that the thoughts are thoughts that you can learn to handle and that the anxiety will decrease eventually on its own. Also, avoidance leads to constant scanning of the environment for any other triggers. The list of triggers to detect and avoid grows longer and life becomes more restrictive.




Another common coping strategy in OCD is reassurance seeking. Like the other strategies discussed, reassurance seeking often lowers anxiety only temporarily but enough that the urge for reassurance gets stronger each time around. Reassurance is often specific to a time and situation and thus any changes to the situation or any small doubt about the reassurance or the source of reassurance will require another round of reassurance seeking. The problem is that the reassurance that is being sought is 100% certainty regarding a situation, and because this is not possible, there is a continuous need for reassurance.


Reassurance seeking can include asking someone about the obsession, researching the obsession, confessing to try to get reassurance, and self-reassurance such as mentally reviewing actions for reassurance that nothing bad happened.


Like the other avoidant strategies, reassurance seeking increases the importance placed on the thought because of the attention given to the thought which then makes the thought more likely to occur. Usually the need for reassurance increases over time where each new doubt requires reassurance and any answers that are given only generates more doubts. As with the other strategies discussed, reassurance seeking does not allow learning to occur that the fears are not likely and that the anxiety will decrease on its own.




Trigger....Thoughts (Obsessions)....Appraisal....Anxiety Surge....Compulsions....Anxiety Relief....Obsessions  (repeat)


The development and maintenance of OCD is believed to occur as follows: a thought occurs (with or without a trigger), importance is placed on the thought (faulty appraisal based on maladaptive belief system), this appraisal leads to intense distress (false alarm), this distress leads to efforts to remove the distress (compulsions), and the compulsions and appraisals make it more likely for the thoughts to reoccur and become obsessions. With each cycle, the frequency and intensity of the thoughts increase, which leads to more catastrophic appraisals, which leads to higher levels of anxiety, which leads to more rigorous use of compulsions. This is the way in which the obsessive compulsive cycle can become debilitating.


The parts of this model that are not under voluntary control are the obsessions and the surge of anxiety. These aspects are involuntary in that spontaneous or disturbing thoughts can occur with all people and a surge of anxiety is a normal reaction to the perception of danger. The parts that are potentially under voluntary control are the importance placed on the thought and the strategies used to deal with the distress (the appraisal and the compulsions). In the beginning, it may seem as if these components are also outside of voluntary control but it is just that they have become highly automatic. Changing thoughts and behaviors that have become automatic takes time and effort but eventually can be replaced by a new, automatic way of dealing with obsessions.




There is a significant amount of information that suggests that OCD is a brain-related disorder that makes it difficult for the mind to let go of thoughts or urges. Dysfunction in certain brain structures (orbitofrontal cortex, basal ganglia) and brain systems (cingulo-opercular network) have been implicated in the development of OCD. These brain structures and systems are responsible for generating normal impulses and urges and also have a built-in brake mechanism to stop these thoughts and urges. In OCD, it seems that the brain is overactive in generating thoughts, images, and impulses, and furthermore, like an itch that won't go away, the mechanism that tells us, "Your hands are clean, you can stop washing," or "The stove is turned off you can go to work now," does not function properly and does not get triggered.


Some people will ask, "If OCD is a brain-related disorder, then is medication the only treatment?" The answer is a pretty solid, "No."  Studies have consistently found that cognitive-behavioral therapy can lead to significant reductions in OCD-related symptoms, similar to improvements with medications. More compelling is the evidence through brain scans that show that improvements with cognitive-behavioral therapy lead to similar brain changes as improvements with medications.


Psychotherapy can teach you new ways of approaching OCD while medications can help facilitate that process, making it easier to interrupt and redirect OCD thoughts and tolerate the discomfort of change. Therapy can be seen as a tool to help you decide what thoughts and behaviors to "grow," while medications "fertilize" and promote this growth. Once new patterns are established, these changes can be long lasting, even when medications are discontinued.




Education: It is important to have a strong understanding of the model of OCD as described above. This information will be used to help challenge obsessive thoughts and appraisals that lead to distress. A more realistic, less catastrophic explanation for the OCD can help manage the distress related to the obsessions. It is also important to understand the treatment rationale as aspects of treatment can be challenging and distressing, and  understanding WHY these strategies are being used can help make these uncomfortable feelings more tolerable.


Self-monitoring: It is important to understand your own unique obsessions, faulty appraisals, compulsions, and avoidance behaviors. Self-monitoring can help identify patterns in your distress and all this information will help develop a specific treatment plan. 


Cognitive techniques: Faulty appraisals will be examined and alternative perspectives will be considered. Maladaptive beliefs will also be explored and modified so as to not be as rigid. Analyzing, arguing with, judging, reassuring, or explaining the thoughts tend to entangle the mind with the obsessions by adding importance to the thoughts, which then strengthens the obsession.


For this reason, standard cognitive therapy techniques of challenging the fear often fuel the obsessions and increase the anxiety. This is because the OCD is seeking reassurance and unfortunately thoughts cannot be proven with absolute certainty to be untrue or safe. Instead, cognitive therapy techniques should be used to guide thoughts away from the urge to engage in the compulsive response. The most effective cognitive therapy tools are to recognize that OCD related distortions in thinking may be occurring, open up to the possibility of other interpretations, and not engage with the content of the thoughts.


Exposure and response prevention (ERP): The primary treatment approach for OCD is called Exposure and Response Prevention. Exposure means approaching in a graduated and controlled manner thoughts, images, objects, or situations that trigger obsessions. Response prevention refers to allowing the anxiety to naturally and slowly subside on its own rather than engaging in a compulsive response that only strengthens the OCD. Response prevention allows for learning how to tolerate feelings of discomfort and distress without engaging in compulsions.


The belief is that a moderate level of anxiety is necessary to turn on the anxiety system and prime it for change. By continuously triggering the obsession and the fear and not engaging in a compulsion, the brain eventually habituates to the obsession allowing the fear response to naturally dissipate. With repeated exposure, the brain responds with less anxiety each time until the trigger no longer leads to intense distress. Exposures are thus opportunities to rewire the brain by teaching it that feared consequences do not necessarily occur and that the ability to cope is stronger than once believed.


ERP can be the most challenging component of therapy but it is often times the most effective. Trying to think differently about obsessions does not seem to be as effective as experiencing it for yourself. It seems as if the part of the brain that is responsible for the fear response learns best through experience. To make the process more tolerable, education, self-monitoring, and cognitive techniques are used to prepare for ERP.


Mindfulness: Mindfulness can also be a powerful component in the treatment of OCD. Mindfulness can be used to train the mind to not react immediately to the worrisome thoughts by pushing them away or by debating them but rather by acknowledging them, accepting them, and recognizing them as OCD. Mindfulness is also used to train the mind to patiently observe the distress and the urge to engage in a compulsion. This requires a level of acceptance of uncertainty and of the futility of control




Many therapists claim to use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) but are in fact using aspects of CBT incorporated into their style of talk therapy. Other therapists may be familiar with the idea of Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) in the treatment for OCD but may not be well-versed in the complicated nature of the disorder and its treatment. For the most effective treatment, it is important to find a therapist who has training and experience specifically in ERP for OCD.


The International OCD Foundation listed the following questions to ask to ensure you are getting a qualified OCD-treatment professional:  

  • What techniques do you use to treat OCD?
    • If the therapist is vague or does not mention CBT or ERP, use caution.
  • Do you use ERP to treat OCD?
    • Be cautious of therapists who say they use CBT but won’t be more specific.
  • What is your training and background in treating OCD?
    • If the therapist went to a CBT psychology graduate program or did a post-doctoral fellowship in CBT, that is a good sign. Another positive is if a therapist says they are a member of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) or the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapists (ABCT). Also, look for therapists who say they have attended specialized workshops or trainings offered by the IOCDF like the Behavior Therapy Institute (BTTI) or Annual OCD Conference.
  • How much of your practice currently involves anxiety disorders?
    • A good answer would be over 25%
  • Do you feel that you have been effective in your treatment of OCD?
    • There answer should be an unqualified, “Yes.”
  • What is your attitude towards medication in the treatment of OCD?
    • If they are negative about medication, this is a bad sign. While not for everyone, medication can be a very effective treatment for OCD.
  • Are you willing to leave your office if needed to do behavior therapy?
    • It is sometimes necessary to go out of the office to do effective ERP.




The International OCD Foundation provides thorough information on OCD, its causes, and its treatments.