Skip to main content

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

or dial 988 for crisis help and support

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition associated with significant, intense anxiety. The hallmarks of OCD are obsessions (repetitive, unwelcome thoughts) and compulsions (physical or mental behaviors) that lessen the anxiety associated with obsessions.

Is OCD an Anxiety Disorder?

No, OCD isn’t an anxiety disorder. OCD often involves intense anxiety, but it’s a distinctly different condition.

Someone with OCD experiences unwanted, intense thoughts, and these thoughts may cause anxiety. But engaging in a compulsion, such as counting steps or repeating a certain phrase, lessens that anxiety. Someone with an anxiety disorder may also experience intrusive or intense thoughts that make them feel anxious. But they don’t engage in compulsions to get rid of their anxiety.

How Common Is OCD?

Estimates show that about one in 100 people in the United States have OCD. It’s slightly more common in females than in males.

OCD Symptoms

The hallmark symptoms of OCD are repetitive obsessions and compulsions that cause intense distress. People with OCD often experience significant anxiety over their obsessions and compulsions and may spend one hour or more dealing with them per day. They may also have symptoms of depression with or without anxiety.

When & How to Seek Help for OCD 

Seek an appointment with a psychiatrist or other mental health provider if you have distressing OCD symptoms that are interfering with your life. You can start by speaking with your primary care provider, who may prescribe antidepressants or refer you to a psychologist.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or the Utah Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. To schedule an appointment with the HMHI, call 801-583-2500.

Types of OCD

There are many categories of OCD. Some experts classify the condition based on the underlying emotion associated with obsessions. People may feel:

  • anxiety, such as a fear of getting sick or injured or
  • disgust, such as feeling revolted by certain objects or situations.

Some people may think they have “pure O,” or OCD that only involves obsessions. But OCD without compulsions is rare. People with “pure O” often still have mental compulsions, such as reciting a mantra, counting, or rehearsing a scene in their heads. These mental compulsions may be less obvious than physical compulsions like handwashing, but they are just as disruptive to a person’s everyday life and well-being.


Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is related to OCD, but it’s not the same. People with OCPD tend to be concerned about following rules to the point that it interferes with their life and prevents them from other activities. But they don’t experience the unwanted, intrusive obsessions and compulsions that people with OCD do.

Can You Have OCD and ADHD?

It’s possible to have both OCD and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But in many people with OCD, issues with attention span are due to OCD itself.

What Causes OCD?

Experts don’t know exactly what causes OCD, but they think it’s a combination of genetics and environmental factors.

Many people with OCD have hyperactivity in the cortico-striatal-thalamo-cortical (CSTC) circuit. The CSTC circuit is the part of the brain that generates possibilities about what you may encounter and how to respond to it. However, researchers don’t know exactly what causes that hyperactivity.

Is OCD Genetic?

Research shows that OCD can run in families. But just because you have OCD doesn’t mean you’ll pass it on to your children. Genetics can contribute to someone’s overall risk of having OCD, but it’s not the only factor.

OCD Test

There’s no single test for OCD. Diagnosing the condition typically involves discussing your symptoms with a psychiatrist or other clinician. An experienced psychiatrist uses OCD scales to help diagnose the condition, which involves asking specific questions about your obsessions and compulsions.

Why Choose Huntsman Mental Health Institute?

Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) at University of Utah Health is the only center in the Mountain West region that offers neurosurgical treatment for OCD. Our specialists have extensive experience in treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders, including OCD and depression.

We provide referrals for deep brain stimulation and other surgical interventions for OCD through the Treatment Resistant Mood Disorders Clinic and offer innovative, new treatment options through clinical trials. Our team provides patient-centered, individualized care to help you live a high quality of life.

OCD Treatment

Your OCD treatment plan often includes a combination of therapy and medication. An experienced psychiatrist will come up with a treatment plan based on your unique needs.

Exposure Therapy for OCD

Exposure therapy often proves to be the most effective treatment for OCD. It involves designing a plan that exposes you to situations that provoke your anxiety. A therapist helps you learn not to engage in your compulsions when you experience that anxiety. Over time, exposure therapy will teach your brain that the situation you’re afraid of isn’t as dangerous as you thought it was. Our team will refer you to a therapist who can offer exposure therapy if needed.

OCD Medication

We may prescribe medications if exposure therapy doesn’t bring enough symptom relief on its own. Your psychiatrist will often start with antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), effectively reducing symptoms for many people. If antidepressants aren’t effective, we may move on to antipsychotic medicines.

Options for Treatment-Resistant OCD

We may turn to minimally invasive neurosurgical treatments if therapy and medications aren’t effective:

  • Laser ablation uses heat probes or focused radiation to safely create a brain lesion that interrupts the CTST circuit.
  • Deep brain stimulation stimulates specific areas of the brain with electrodes and a small, implantable device.

OCD in Children

OCD usually starts in childhood. The symptoms of OCD in children are typically similar to the symptoms of OCD in adults. As an adult, it’s common for you to experience the same obsessions and compulsions that you had as a child.

What Triggers OCD in a Child?

There’s no specific factor that triggers OCD in a child. However, children with a genetic predisposition to OCD may start experiencing symptoms of the condition after a traumatic event.

It’s common for a child with a vulnerability to OCD to start experiencing symptoms connected to the traumatic event. For example, a child who loses a parent to a heart attack may start having obsessions about dying suddenly.

How to Help Children & Teens with OCD

You might notice signs your child or teen needs mental health support for OCD. Our experts can answer questions and recommend the best treatment options for your child. HMHI offers a range of OCD treatment programs for children and teens:

Does OCD Get Worse with Age?

OCD doesn’t necessarily worsen with age. In fact, many people find that OCD gets better as they get older. Many children with OCD experience spontaneous remission (symptoms go away for no known reason) in early adulthood.

Can OCD Be Cured?

OCD typically involves lifelong management. But treatment can reduce your symptoms enough that they don’t interfere with your daily life.

How to Help Someone with OCD

It can be hard to see someone you love struggling with OCD. But it doesn’t usually work to try to force or demand that someone seek help. Instead, talk with them about how their symptoms interfere with their life. For most people, the self-motivation to get better helps them stick to a treatment plan and leads to lasting change.

Mental Health Crisis Resources

We are here for you when you need us the most. Our team of professionals are trained in:

  • mental health crisis management,
  • suicide prevention, and
  • emotional wellness.

HMHI provides the following specialty programs and resources for you and your loved ones to prevent mental health crises and provide emotional support when needed.

Hear From Our Specialists