What Happens in OCD?

OCD causes the brain to create repetitive worries and fears. These worries, fears and "bad thoughts" can pop up in the brain and might be hard to get rid of.

People who have OCD feel they can't stop thinking about worries like these:

  • someone might get sick, hurt, or die
  • things might be germy or dirty
  • something isn't straight, even, or exactly right
  • something is lucky or unlucky, bad or good, safe or harmful
  • bad thoughts might come true

OCD also can cause people to feel they have to do behaviors to feel safe from worries and fears. For example, someone with OCD might feel like they have to:

  • wash and clean too much
  • erase, rewrite, or re-do things
  • repeat a word, phrase, or a question more often than necessary
  • check and re-check if something is closed or locked
  • touch, tap, or step in an unusual way
  • put things in just the right order

These behaviors are called rituals. People with OCD may repeat rituals over and over. Doing a ritual temporarily interrupts the bad thoughts.

The brain learns that doing a ritual brings relief. Pretty soon, people with OCD do a ritual automatically. They may feel like they can't stop. But doing rituals causes OCD to continue.

The name OCD is short for obsessive-compulsive disorder. "Disorder" is a medical way of saying that something in the body isn't working properly. "Obsessive" is the unwanted thoughts and worries. "Compulsive" is a medical word used to describe the behaviors that people feel they must do to fix the worries.

What Causes OCD?

OCD happens because of a problem in the brain's message system. The problem causes worry and fear messages to form by mistake. It also causes the strong feeling of having to do a ritual to make things safe.

Scientists don't yet know what causes this problem to happen. OCD tends to run in families. People may get OCD because it's in their genes or they might have had an infection. There may be differences in the brain that cause OCD to start. OCD is not caused by anything a person (or parent) did.

What's it Like for People With OCD?

Teens with OCD might have it for a while before a parent or doctor realizes it. They may know that their worries and rituals don't make sense. They may want to stop, but feel they can't.

OCD worries and rituals can multiply and begin taking more time and energy. This makes it hard to concentrate, do schoolwork, or enjoy fun and friends. OCD can leave people feeling stressed, tired, and sad.

People who have OCD don't have to go through it alone. The best thing to do is tell a parent or other adult so you can go to a doctor.

How Is OCD Diagnosed and Treated?

To diagnose OCD, doctors who know the signs of OCD will ask questions and talk about what's happening. They also will do a health checkup.

If a doctor decides that you have OCD, it can be a relief to know what's causing the trouble. Now you can move forward and learn how to overcome it.

OCD can get better with therapy. Doctors sometimes also give medicines to treat OCD. But not everyone needs medicine to get well.

Therapists and doctors use a talk-and-do therapy for OCD. During this treatment, you will learn more about OCD and how it works. You will learn that doing rituals keeps OCD going strong and not doing rituals weakens OCD. You will learn and practice ways to face fears and ignore worry messages caused by OCD. You will learn to resist doing rituals.

You'll spend time talking and practicing your new skills. This can take time — how long depends on the person. But learning and practicing these skills stops the cycle of OCD and allows the brain's message system to work better again.

How Can Parents Help?

If you're going through OCD, parents or other adults can be a big part of helping you get better.

Your therapist can teach your parent the best ways to help you through OCD. Family members can help you practice the things you learn in therapy, like dealing with fears and rituals. They can help you with schoolwork if you have trouble getting it done. They can talk with your teacher if you need extra help while you're going through OCD.

Parents and adults in your life can be there to give you love and support. They can take your mind off OCD by doing fun or relaxing things with you. And they can remind you that OCD can get better with time, practice, and patience.

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