OCD is characterized by unwanted and recurring thoughts that create anxiety. These persistent thoughts may lead someone to perform rituals over and over, such as constant hand washing or repeatedly checking to make sure electrical appliances are turned off. Some people describe OCD as a mental hiccup or a broken record where you are compelled to do the same thing over and over.
The behaviors themselves aren't unusual; after all, we all find ourselves occasionally worrying about whether or not we shut off the stove. However, what makes such behaviors compulsions is when such activities occur over and over, sometimes for hours at a time, until they interfere with everyday life.
OCD is considered an anxiety disorder and it can appear in childhood, but typically begins in the teens or early adulthood.
The disturbing thoughts vary from person to person. Some may be obsessed with germs, causing them to wash over and over; others may worry about checking things; others may obsess about the health of loved ones; still others may become obsessed about symmetry, leading them to arrange things in a certain order. The thoughts are called obsessions. The rituals people develop to relieve the anxiety these thoughts create are called compulsions.
OCD may be accompanied by other anxiety disorders such as panic attacks or phobias. People with OCD may try to avoid situations that cause their obsessive thoughts. They may try self-medicating with alcohol or drugs in an effort to calm their anxiety. Sometimes, OCD can develop to the point where it makes it impossible for someone to hold a job; however many people with OCD manage to create an outward appearance that hides their disorder from all but the closest friends or family members.
Not all obsessive compulsive behaviors represent an illness. Some rituals like bedtime songs and religious practices are normal and natural. Normal worries, such as contamination fears, may increase during times of stress, such as when someone in the family is sick or dying. Only when symptoms persist, make no sense, cause much distress or interfere with daily life do they need clinical attention.