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August 1995

Is Hyperarousal Essential to Obsessive-compulsive Disorder?Diminished Physiologic Flexibility, but Not Hyperarousal, Characterizes Patients With Obsessive-compulsive Disorder

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, Md.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1995;52(8):688-693. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1995.03950200078017

Objective:  To examine the hypothesis that the pathologic features of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are facilitated by abnormal levels of arousal, we compared patients with OCD with controls on self-reports and psychophysiologic measures.

Methods:  Twenty-three patients with OCD were compared with 21 controls on rating scales and on psychophysiologic measures (ie, heart interbeat interval, skin conductance, respiration, blood pressure, and electromyographic activity) during rest and during two psychologically stressful tasks.

Results:  Patients rated themselves higher on psychic and somatic anxiety scales. Mean physiologic activities were not elevated at rest. During tasks, changes in electrodermal, cardiovascular (except blood pressure), and muscle activities were smaller in patients with OCD, indicating decreased physiologic flexibility.

Conclusions:  Hyperarousal, measured peripherally, is not an essential pathologic feature of OCD. Decreased physiologic flexibility indicates an anxiety-related, but not OCD-specific, impairment of psychophysiologic reactivity to one's environment.