Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

A UT Health Austin psychologist clears up misconceptions surrounding the mental health condition

Reviewed by: Gregory Muller, PhD
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A man in a denim jacket closes his eyes and rests his head in one hand.

When many people picture obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), images of excessive tidying may come to mind. “People often use OCD as an adjective, describing a serious dislike for germs or a need to be organized as ‘so OCD,’” says Greg Muller, PhD, a psychologist in UT Health Austin’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences.

“While OCD causes such behavior,” continues Dr. Muller, “the reality of the condition is much more complex. OCD can interfere with a person’s ability to live a typical life, hold down a job, have the types of social relationships that they want, and engage in things they enjoy.”

Fighting Unwanted Thoughts

A hallmark sign of OCD is frequent intrusive thoughts, which Dr. Muller defines as ideas that get stuck in a person’s mind, often causing significant distress. He explains that while many people experience intrusive thoughts from time to time, these ideas can become obsessions for people with OCD.

Common obsessions that people with OCD experience may include:

  • Excessive concern about germs or cleanliness
  • Concern that they will harm others
  • Concern that they will act in violent or sexually taboo manner
  • Excessive religious or moral concern (scrupulosity)
  • The need for items to be arranged “just right”
  • Concern about saving items (sometimes related to hoarding)

While often disturbing, these obsessions are not a reflection of a person’s character. “OCD often attacks the things that matter the most to people,” notes Dr. Muller.

People with OCD engage in behaviors called compulsions to gain a sense of control over these thoughts. “People preoccupied with germs may decontaminate themselves after a day out in public,” says Dr. Muller. “Compulsive behavior is not always obvious to others. People can perform mental compulsions, auditing themselves to make sure that they’re thinking in just the right way. For instance, they might feel compelled to think in certain patterns. It may look like a person’s just sitting and idling, but they’re actually engaging in compulsive behavior.”

Breaking the Cycle

Compulsive behaviors may provide temporary relief to people with OCD, but they ultimately reinforce the condition’s problematic thought patterns in what Dr. Muller refers to as a “vicious relationship” between obsessions and compulsions. The gold standard for long-term OCD management is exposure and response prevention (ERP), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The American Psychological Association defines CBT as therapy that equips patients to recognize and address their own negative thoughts, behavioral patterns, and emotions.

During ERP treatment, patients gradually face their fears as they are progressively exposed to different situations from a “fear hierarchy” they create with their doctor. This features activities that range from mildly upsetting to those that seriously impair one’s ability to function. “For a patient with a fear of heights,” explains Dr. Mueller, “we might have the patient stand on a stool, then a couch. Next, we’ll go higher up on a building, and then to the top of the building, and ultimately maybe go on an airplane.”

People undergoing ERP treatment for OCD must face experiences related to their obsessions without engaging in compulsive behavior. This treatment can be daunting, but Dr. Muller encourages patients to give it their strongest effort. “People often walk out of treatment surprised by how much progress that they’ve made,” shares Dr. Muller. “ERP does not eliminate all intrusive thoughts, but over time patients are better prepared to manage these events when they occur.”

“I want people to know that there’s hope,” adds Dr. Muller. “For people who wish to learn more about the condition, they can visit the International OCD Foundation website.”

For more information about the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences or to make an appointment, call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.