Harvard Women's Health Watch

When thoughts become obsessions

How many germs are on that doorknob? What if the house burns down? A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder thinks about these things all the time.

We all have disturbing thoughts, but most of us quickly dismiss them or keep them in perspective. We use the restaurant restroom, wash our hands, and go back to enjoy dinner. We turn off the stove or space heater before leaving the house and then focus on our driving — not on the danger of a fire at home.

For someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it's not so easy. Thoughts of danger become obsessions. Recurrent ideas, images, or impulses intrude and can't be dispelled, creating intense fear and anxiety. To relieve the distress, a person with OCD feels she must engage in repetitive behaviors or rituals, such as washing hands repeatedly, checking the stove innumerable times, or repeating a mantra.

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