Most people consider practices like hand washing and checking that the lights are turned off good habits. But for others these are compulsive behaviors that disrupt everyday life, said a Baylor College of Medicine clinical psychologist.

When behavior gets to that point, it could be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, said Dr. Melinda Stanley, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at BCM.

"The impact of OCD is tremendous. The disorder is serious and frequently prevents people from being able to work or maintain relationships. The symptoms are also very difficult for family members who suffer watching their loved ones," said Stanley, who is also an investigator with the Health Services Research and Development Center of Excellence at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.

Repetitive thoughts, images, urges

Certain habits and systematic ways of doing things are normal if they are infrequent and do not cause distress or disruption in life. But it is not considered normal if a person has trouble getting a thought out of his or her mind or has difficulty changing a behavioral routine because it is too anxiety provoking.

OCD is characterized by repetitive thoughts, images or urges that people cannot control. Examples include excessive thoughts about dirt, germs or contamination, doubts that one has done something correctly or at all, repetitive thoughts of death or sex and extreme need for things to be symmetrical or "just right."

These thoughts produce fears of a negative outcome, such as illness or injury, rejection or being responsible for a serious mistake. This anxiety is only alleviated through repetitive actions like excessive hand washing, checking appliances to make sure they are off and ordering things around the house.

"People who suffer from OCD recognize the senselessness of the repetitive behaviors but feel unable to change their patterns," Stanley said.

Treatment helps manage disorder

Medication and a form of behavior therapy called exposure and response prevention therapy have been shown to be effective treatments for OCD, Stanley said. Cognitive behavior therapy is beneficial as well.

People with OCD will most likely experience some level of symptoms all their lives, Stanley said, but treatment helps people to manage their symptoms so they can function and enjoy their lives.

"We often explain to patients that managing OCD is similar to managing a chronic illness like diabetes. It will always be with you at some level but you can live a very full life by learning how to manage symptoms so that they do not interfere with the things you want to do," Stanley said.

Hoarding related to OCD

Excessive hoarding is a pattern of behavior related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Hoarders have obsessive thoughts about losing things or throwing things away that they may later need. They repetitively check their belongings to make sure they haven't lost anything, and they save things that appear to have little or no value, like newspapers, used napkins and junk mail.

Hoarding has some significant differences from OCD, however, Stanley said. Hoarders often have positive feelings about what they do. In addition, the treatments used for OCD do not seem to be as effective with hoarding.

"New models of treatment are currently being developed to help people reduce hoarding, and these show very good promise," she said.

OCD and hoarding have become a hot topic, thanks to cable television shows, but Stanley said there is no evidence they are on the rise. She said the shows have value because they offer the public information about symptoms and how to recognize and treat them.

"More information helps people to be more aware of symptoms and to feel less stigma in talking about them," she said. "Many people with OCD are reluctant to talk about it for fear of negation evaluation."