How Is Severe OCD Treated?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that causes a person to have persistent, recurring, intrusive, and often upsetting thoughts (obsessions), along with repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions). These acts are performed in an attempt to reduce anxiety caused by the obsessions.

OCD has a lifetime prevalence of approximately 2.3% among adults in the United States. Up to half of adults with OCD experience serious impairment, known as severe OCD.

Read on to learn how OCD can cause intrusive symptoms that interfere with daily functioning and how these symptoms can be managed.

A person carefully aligns colored pencils on a table.

AntonioGuillem / Getty Images

Causes and Risk Factors of Severe OCD

OCD affects men and women equally. It can develop anytime from preschool to late in life, but begins most often during two peaks: between the ages of 9 to 11 and between the ages of 20 to 23. Up to 50% of cases have juvenile-onset, while less than 10% start after age 40.

Age of onset may play a role in severity. Early or middle childhood-onset has been associated with a better outcome and higher rate of spontaneous remission. Onset in adolescence or later in life may result in more persistent symptoms and course of the condition.

The exact cause of OCD isn't known, but a number of factors that may play a role have been identified.


While no specific genes for OCD have been identified, it appears to run in families, suggesting it has a genetic component.

Some research shows that if a parent has OCD, their child has a slightly increased risk of developing some forms of OCD (such as childhood-onset OCD).

Brain Activity

Brain studies have noted differences in the brains of people with and without OCD.

People with OCD show an overactive neural circuit between the prefrontal cortex (involved in cognitive behavior, executive decision making, and personality), and the nucleus accumbens (part of the reward system).

Imaging techniques, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are being used to study the brains of people with OCD to better understand how brain differences affect OCD.

Serotonin is neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) that has been associated with the development and maintenance of OCD. Medications that target serotonin levels can help reduce OCD symptoms.

Psychological Factors

OCD may be influenced by:

  • How a person interprets events and pays attention to information
  • Their beliefs about obsessions
  • Certain personality traits (such as perfectionism)

Life Experiences

Stress, such as marital problems, school exams, or a new baby, can increase symptoms for people with OCD.

Other conditions like depression or other emotional problems can also cause a worsening of symptoms.

Associated Conditions

Comorbidities (co-occurring conditions) are common in people with OCD. Studies show rates as high as 90% of people with OCD meeting the criteria for at least one other mental health condition in their lifetime.

Conditions seen alongside OCD include:

Many people with OCD also experience suicidal thoughts and actions.

Help Is Available

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

If you or a loved one is struggling with OCD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Complications of OCD

OCD symptoms can be severe enough to greatly impact a person's ability to function in daily life, such as attending school, being employed, sustaining relationships, and performing tasks such as running errands or self-care. In fact, worldwide, OCD is counted among the top 10 causes of disability.

About 20% of people with OCD have severely debilitating symptoms that can result in isolation (including staying in their homes), reduced quality of life, and economic hardship.

About 10% of people with OCD have severe symptoms that are resistant to all therapies, leading to great functional impairment.

Treatment for Severe OCD

Some research has found that prolonged treatment has lower relapse rates than short-term treatment, even after treatment is discontinued. This suggests that early intensive and long-term treatment may result in better outcomes for people with OCD.

There are several types of treatments available for OCD, which most commonly include medication and/or psychotherapy (talk therapy).


Medications that may be prescribed to treat OCD include:

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Celexa (citalopram)
  • Luvox (fluvoxamine)
  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Lexapro (Escitalopram)

Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

  • Pristiq (desvenlafaxine)
  • Effexor (venlafaxine)
  • Cymbalta (duloxetine)

Tricyclic Antidepressants

  • Anafranil (Clomipramine)

These medications all target serotonin, and some also target the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. In some cases, such as if a person does not respond to serotonin-targeting medications, a combination of medications may be tried. For example, an SSRI antidepressant may be combined with a medication such as risperidone (also used to treat psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions).


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common psychotherapy used to treat OCD. It helps with:

  • Controlling compulsive rituals/avoidance
  • Reducing the anxiety surrounding obsessions, ultimately reducing their intensity and frequency

CBT for OCD has two major components.

Behavior therapy and exposure and ritual prevention (ERP) involves:

  • Gradually increasing exposure to and confrontation of anxiety-inducing triggers, such as obsessions, while resisting the urge to use compulsive behaviors in response
  • Regularly repeating (up to two-hour-long sessions, at least four to five times a week) until the situation or experience no longer triggers distress

Cognitive therapy involves:

  • Helping a person with OCD learn to recognize their anxious beliefs about the meaning of their obsessions and substitute them with more realistic ones
  • Learning to recognize that their obsession doesn't hurt anyone and does not have the power to, despite their anxious thoughts about it

Anxiety Management

A mindfulness-based program known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is emerging as a newer treatment for OCD. It's less researched than CBT, but it is showing promise as a treatment used alongside CBT or for people who have not responded well to ERP.

Characteristics of ACT include:

  • Less focused on reducing intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and more focused on changing the way they are experienced
  • Distinguishes between thoughts, feelings, and actions
  • Believes thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations are not under a person's control, but how the person responds to them is
  • Aims to help a person with OCD experience anxious thoughts as neutral, letting them come and go without the need to respond, making them less intrusive

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you are experiencing symptoms that are disrupting your life, see a healthcare provider or mental health professional, particularly if they:

  • Impair functioning
  • Cause distress
  • Take up an hour or more each day
  • Interfere with your daily life

If symptoms are severe, a psychiatric consultation is recommended.

Residential Treatment

Increased intensity care may be needed for people with OCD who:

  • Have very severe symptoms
  • Have not responded effectively to less intensive treatments, such as medication and/or therapy
  • Are unable to have their needs met through typical treatment routes

Levels of therapy, from least to most intensive, include:

  • Traditional outpatient: Individual sessions with a therapist (generally 45 to 50-minute sessions, one or two times a week)
  • Intensive outpatient: May involve group sessions and one individual session per day, several days a week
  • Day program: Treatment sessions (typically group and individual therapy) are attended during the day (typically all day) at a mental health treatment center, up to five days a week
  • Partial hospitalization: Same as the day program, but treatment is received at a mental health hospital
  • Residential: Treatment is received while voluntarily living in an unlocked mental health treatment center or hospital
  • Inpatient: The highest level of care for a mental health condition, inpatient is used if a person poses harm to themselves or others or is unable to care for themselves. The person receives treatment in a locked unit in a mental health hospital (may be voluntary or involuntary).

Emerging Therapies

Research is being conducted on other ways to treat OCD, including some treatments that are beginning to be implemented. These treatments include:

  • Surgery: Involves a procedure known as deep brain stimulation (DBS), in which electrical leads are placed into specific areas of the brain and then connected to a neurostimulator (like a "pacemaker for the brain"). Surgery can also be used to create a lesion in the brain that interrupts the overactive circuit. Surgery is not a cure and is considered a last resort when other treatments have not been successful.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): In ECT, controlled electrical currents are passed through the brain, inducing a controlled seizure. The person is under general anesthesia for the procedure (about five to 10 minutes). It may be suggested when first-line therapies have not been effective.


OCD is a mental health condition characterized by intrusive, recurrent thoughts (obsessions) and patterns of behaviors (compulsions) used to try to relieve anxiety caused by the obsessions. It is typically treated with medications, such as antidepressants, and psychotherapy, such as CBT.

Some people with OCD experience severe symptoms that cause debilitating disruptions to their level of functioning. More intensive treatments, such as programs within a mental health facility, may be needed for people with severe symptoms or who are unresponsive to conventional treatments. Emerging therapies that may be used as a "last resort" treatment for OCD include surgery and electroconvulsive therapy.

A Word From Verywell 

OCD can make it difficult to function in everyday life, particularly if symptoms are severe. If you are experiencing severe OCD symptoms, managing them may feel daunting. Fortunately, several effective treatment options exist for severe OCD symptoms, including ones that have shown promise in people who have not responded to typical treatment. Speak to a healthcare provider or mental health professional about what options may be right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the warning signs of severe OCD?

    Severe OCD is indicated based on the level of impairment the symptoms cause. Symptoms may be considered severe if they are causing significant disruption and distress.

  • Is there a cure for OCD?

    There is no cure for OCD, but symptoms can wax and wane in severity over time, and many people go into remission from OCD. Evidence-based therapies can help manage symptoms and may promote OCD remission.

  • Does untreated OCD require hospitalization?

    People with severe OCD that are not responding to other treatments may look for inpatient treatment, but untreated OCD does not mean hospitalization will be necessary. Inpatient care is considered a last resort.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alonso P, Cuadras D, Gabriëls L, et al. Deep brain stimulation for obsessive-compulsive disorder: a meta-analysis of treatment outcome and predictors of response. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(7):e0133591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133591

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

  4. Sharma E, Math S. Course and outcome of obsessive–compulsive disorder. Indian J Psychiatry. 2019;61(7):43. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_521_18

  5. Pauls DL. The genetics of obsessive-compulsive disorder: a reviewDialogues Clin Neurosci. 2010;12(2):149-163. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2010.12.2/dpauls

  6. University of Chicago Medicine. Medication, therapy and now surgery offer hope for severe obsessive compulsive disorder.

  7. St. Joseph's Healthcare. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

  8. Fenske JN, Petersen K. Obsessive-compulsive disorder: diagnosis and management. AFP. 2015;92(10):896-903.

  9. Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Canada’s first intensive residential program for severe OCD.

  10. International OCD Foundation. What is ACT?

  11. International OCD Foundation. How is OCD treated?

  12. National Alliance on Mental Illness. ECT, TMS and other brain stimulation therapies.

  13. Liu X, Cui H, Wei Q, et al. Electroconvulsive therapy on severe obsessive-compulsive disorder comorbid depressive symptoms. Psychiatry Investig. 2014;11(2):210. doi:10.4306/pi.2014.11.2.210

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.