The symptoms evidenced by persons with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) vary, but the categories do not. They report Obsessions and exhibit Compulsions. These symptoms are persistent and long-term, and, even when they appear irrational to the person suffering from OCD, they still seem uncontrollable or irresistible to her.
Obsessions are thoughts, ideas, and images that “come to mind” and stay there, even though they are unwanted, anxiety-provoking, and unreasonable. The individual is simply unable to stop thinking them. Knowing this only exacerbates the symptoms. These thoughts produce anxiety, fear, distress, and apprehension, frequently followed by mental or physical activities that the person is compelled to perform (compulsions) in order to relieve the unwanted and stressful emotions. The individual’s compulsions are many times linked to her obsessions. These compulsions are not always voluntary, and they are not enjoyable to the person, but are carried out to relieve her anxiety created by the obsessive thoughts.
Obsessions that are common among patients with OCD revolve around such unifying subjects as God or religion, sex, disease/contamination, and safety/violence. For example, the patient’s obsessions about safety may make her feel compelled to check the pilot light for the furnace, the eyes of the stove, the locks on all the doors, etc. over and over again. These “checking” actions are compulsions, brought about by the associated cluster of obsessions.
The obsessions and compulsions of a person with OCD can literally be debilitating. Not only do they cause anxiety within the individual, but they are also time consuming and can interfere with one’s academic or occupational functioning, social activities, and personal relationships, in addition to her normal routine. Obsessive thoughts may also interfere with sleep, affecting academic and job performance, in terms of reducing grades or lowering work productivity. In severe cases they can result in loss of employment or dropping out of school.