What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder consisting of recurring and unwanted obsessive thoughts and/or repetitive and compulsive actions and behaviours. OCD can vary in its severity and impact and can sometimes result in very high levels of anxiety and distress. OCD can also take up a considerable amount of time and attention for both, the sufferer and their family and/or friends. OCD is believed to affect between 1.9 to 3% of young people and can affect people from any social class, ethnicity or background.

When is OCD a problem and potentially meeting a diagnostic threshold?

Anxious thoughts are common and they can influence our behaviour in a helpful way. For example, the thought; “Did I leave the front door open?” may lead someone to go back and check, to prevent the house from being burgled. It is also normal to have certain routines (e.g. checking the door is locked after leaving the house). However, if these thoughts and behaviours become obsessive (recurring), they can lead someone to engage in unhelpful behaviours (e.g. repeatedly checking the door), which can interfere with their daily functioning (e.g. frequently being late for work or school). OCD is maintained when a person carries out compulsions (e.g. locking the door 10 times after leaving the house) to reduce their anxiety and obsessive thoughts, as this reinforces their belief that their worrying thoughts may be true.   They never get the opportunity to learn that their anxiety will gradually go away without performing their compulsions. If you feel that your OCD is causing significant distress or interference in your daily life, it might be time to seek out some help or support to try to break these unhelpful maintenance cycles.

What are the main symptoms of OCD?

Some of the most common signs to look out for regarding whether someone is experiencing OCD can include (although are not limited to):

  • Particular and repetitive behaviours (e.g. the tidying of a room in a certain way or the recurrent lining up of certain items)
  • Repetitive hand washing
  • Prolonged showering/bathing
  • Excessive worry about handwriting and/or neatness of handwriting
  • Excessive worry about possible harm coming to loved ones
  • Repeated checking of things (e.g. door locks, windows, taps, gas hobs)
  • Repeated counting and distress when interrupted
  • Excessive worry about illness or disease
  • Hording of items and/or refusal to discard seemingly useless items


OCD is a very treatable condition and there are many things you can do to recover from this debilitating diagnosis. As with general anxiety, there are two strands of treatment; psychological and pharmacological (drugs). Generally, the first line of treatment is time-limited psychological therapy and in particular using a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) informed approach to initially help you better understand your OCD and set goals to try to break the negative maintenance cycles you are likely to be stuck in. One way of doing this is using exposure and response prevention, whereby you are encouraged to face your fears (i.e. obsessions) without giving in to your compulsions or associated repetitive behaviours, with this process being implemented in very small and achievable steps. This will provide you with some evidence that your fears won’t come true while also learning how to cope with the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety (with the support of your therapist).


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