How Does OCD Affect The Brain?

How Does OCD Affect The Brain?

It’s estimated that 1 in every 40 adults and about 1 in 100 children have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). That means that at any given time, there are millions of people in the United States alone living with this debilitating mental disorder. If you’re one of those people, you know that OCD can make everyday life incredibly difficult and stressful. But what you may not know is how exactly OCD affects the brain.

What are the Symptoms of OCD?

OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive and often anxiety-inducing thoughts, images, or urges that repeatedly bombard one’s mind. Compulsions are behaviors or mental acts that a person feels they must perform in order to relieve the anxiety caused by their obsessions.

For example, someone with an obsession with contamination may feel the need to wash their hands repeatedly to keep off germs. In severe cases, compulsions can completely take over a person’s life and make it hard to work or complete simple chores. 

OCD and the Brain

There are three primary structures in the brain that are believed to be involved in OCD: the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the ventral striatum. The amygdala is responsible for our fight-or-flight response, while the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for our decision-making abilities. The ventral striatum, on the other hand, is involved in our sense of pleasure and reward.

These three structures work in a coordinated manner and are responsible for our ability to solve problems in a logical manner. But for individuals with OCD, it’s thought that there is a lack of coordination between these three structures. This imbalance tricks the brain into thinking that compulsions or ritualistic behaviors are the only way to solve or deal with the overwhelming anxiety caused by obsessions.

The ventral striatum then motivates the brain to keep performing the compulsions in order to achieve the sense of relief or pleasure that comes with it. This creates a feedback loop that can be challenging to break out of.

Dysregulation of neurotransmitters in the brain is also thought to play a role in OCD. Research has shown that individuals with OCD have abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters, especially glutamate, which can potentially trigger or further perpetuate the symptoms of OCD. This explains why medications that target these neurotransmitters, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are often effective in managing symptoms of OCD.

How to Break the Cycle of OCD

If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, it’s important to seek professional help. While there is no cure for OCD, there are treatments that can be effective in managing the symptoms and helping people lead normal, productive lives.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common and evidence-based treatments for OCD. CBT works by helping people identify and challenge their negative thoughts and behaviors. It also teaches people how to better cope with their anxiety and manage their compulsions.

The most common technique used in CBT for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP), which involves gradually exposing a person to their fear or anxiety-inducing thoughts or objects (in a controlled environment) and teaching them to refrain from performing their compulsions.

Final Thoughts

OCD affects millions of people in the US and beyond, and there is still much we don’t understand about this mental disorder. But thanks to advances in technology and research, however, we are slowly but surely learning more about how OCD affects the brain.

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