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More than two percent of the population is affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) (NIMH, 1996). OCD is an anxiety disorder which leads to repetitive thoughts and behaviors which do not serve a functional purpose. OCD can be quite debilitating, with the severity ranging from mild to severe. In some cases people spend considerable amounts of their time engaged in repetitive tasks which appear to serve no function. An example would be someone who will not leave their house until they have checked to see that the stove is off over forty times.

There is no agreement as to what causes OCD. Some have hypothesized that it may have a physiological basis, either genetically based or including some sort of chemical imbalance in the brain (Zabriskie & Swedo, 1997). There have been a number of different ways that have been tried to treat OCD. People have attempted to use psychotherapy, there have been pharmacological attempts where different medicines have been tried, but probably the most successful approach has been through behavior modification. Some approaches are both behavioral and cognitive.

“Exposure and Response Prevention” is one such approach and consists of encouraging a subject to confront their feared object or thought (mentally or literally) and then encouraging the subject to refrain from engaging in obsessive compulsive behaviors (NIMH, 1996). The behavioral approach to OCD begins with the assumption that the compulsive behavior has previously been reinforced or is under the control of reinforcement.

Rincover, Newson, and Carr (1979) made a distinction between compulsive behaviors which are negatively reinforced through avoidance, and operant behaviors which are maintained through positive reinforcement. They postulate that compulsive behaviors involve anxiety which is eliminated as a result of the subject engaging in the behavior. They contrast this with operant behaviors which do not involve anxiety. It is their contention that anxiety based compulsions are more difficult to treat than behaviors which are basically operant.

Some researchers have used a combination of treatments. Fisman and Walsh (1994), used a combination of the drug clomipramine together with exposure and response prevention in a 12 year old boy, who was fearful of contracting AIDS, and washed his hands compulsively. Their approach consisted of exposing the subject to previously avoided situations which elicited fear, while at the same time preventing the child from engaging in the compulsive hand washing behavior. There are more treatment options.

There are many approaches to treating OCD. A combination of behavior therapy and pharmacological methods has proved to be the most effective. If you think you might suffer from OCD see your psychologist or psychiatrist immediately, help is only a phone call away.