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What are obsessions?

Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted, causing most individuals to feel anxiety or distress. An individual who has obsessions will try to ignore or suppress the thoughts, urges or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action, including a compulsive act.

What are compulsions?

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly. The behaviors or thoughts are aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or distress, or preventing some dreaded event or situation. However, the behaviors or thoughts are not connected in a realistic way to what they are designed to neutralize or prevent, or are clearly excessive. Examples of compulsions include hand washing, checking things, praying, counting, repeating words silently.

Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Genetic?

Genetic studies indicate that relatives of persons with OCD have a threefold to a fivefold higher probability of having OCD or obsessive-compulsive features. Studies of twins have consistently found a much higher rate of OCD among identical twins than among fraternal twins. However, it’s not yet clear if the higher probability of OCD among relatives is always due to genetics versus the influence of cultural and behavioral factors.

What are the most common types of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

The most common pattern of OCD is an obsession with contamination, followed by washing or accompanied by compulsive avoidance of the presumably contaminated object. Patients may literally rub the skin off their hands by excessive hand washing or may be unable to leave their homes due to fear of germs.

The second most common pattern in OCD is an obsession with doubt, followed by a compulsion to check. The obsession often implies some danger of violence, such as forgetting to turn off the stove or not locking a door. The checking may involve multiple trips back into the house to check the stove, for example.

The third most common pattern of OCD involves intrusive obsession thoughts without a compulsion. Such obsessions are usually repetitious thoughts of a sexual or aggressive act that is reprehensible to the patient. Patients obsessed with thoughts of aggressive or sexual acts may report themselves to the police or confess to a priest.

The fourth most common pattern of OCD is the need for symmetry or precision, which can lead to a compulsion of slowness. For example, individuals with this form of OCD can take hours to eat a meal or shave their faces.

What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

Body dysmorphic disorder is a preoccupation that a person has with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are not observable or appear slight to others. The individual also performs repetitive behaviors, such as excessive grooming, mirror checking or reassurance-seeking, or mental acts, such as appearing one’s appearance to others, in response to the concern.

The preoccupation causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The preoccupation with one’s appearance is not better explained by symptoms of an eating disorder. The diagnosis will include” muscle dysmorphia” if the individual is preoccupied with the idea that his or her body build is too small or insufficiently muscular.

What is a Hoarding Disorder?

A hoarding disorder is defined as a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value. The difficulty is due to a perceived need to save the items, resulting in the accumulation of possessions that congest and clutter active living areas. The hoarding causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, including maintaining a safe environment for one’s self and others. The hoarding is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder or medical condition.

What is Trichotillomania (Hair-Pulling Disorder)?

Trichotillomania, or hair-pulling disorder, is recurrent pulling out of one’s hair, resulting in hair loss. The hair pulling causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The hair pulling or hair loss is not attributable to another medical issue, such as a dermatological condition, or another mental disorder.

What is Excoriation (Skin-Picking) Disorder?

Excoriation is recurrent skin picking, resulting in skin lesions. The skin picking causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The skin picking is not attributable to the effects of a substance (e.g., cocaine), another medical condition (e.g., scabies), or another mental disorder.

A substance/medication-induced obsessive-compulsive disorder or a related disorder is:

  •  Obsessions, compulsions, skin picking, hair pulling, other body-focused repetitive behaviors, or other symptoms characteristic of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.
  •  Symptoms occur during or soon after substance intoxication or withdrawal, or after exposure to a medication.
  •  The involved substance/medication is capable of producing obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  •  The condition causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  •  Diagnoses may specify amphetamine, cocaine, or other known or unknown substance.

Yes. Obsessions, compulsions, preoccupations with appearance, hoarding, skin picking, hair pulling, other body-focused repetitive behaviors can be caused by other medical conditions, such as a stroke or brain injury.

Mental Health Library Sources:

Information included in all topics of the Mental Health Library comes from the Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria From DSM-5 and Kaplan & Sadock’s Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry. Complete diagnostic and treatment information may be found within these publications.


Information within the Mental Health Library is not intended to be used for self-diagnosis purposes. Rather, it is provided as a public educational service to make people aware of mental health conditions. Please consult a qualified mental health professional for a diagnosis of any suspected mental health illness.

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