Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) manifests through repeated actions and unwanted thoughts and urges that cannot be controlled. It also involves distressing images in the mind that affect the person’s well-being.

People with OCD become filled with anxiety as a result of unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive patterns of behavior (compulsions). If you or a loved one is suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, you know these obsessions and compulsions disrupt a person’s daily life. People often turn to substance abuse to quell the symptoms. They may also be dealing with a co-occurring mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or a personality disorder.

OCD Symptoms

The obsessions experienced by people with OCD symptoms may have common compulsive themes. Some of the more common OCD obsessions include:

  • Fear of being contaminated. People with OCD symptoms are often terrified of anything they perceive as a health threat. They may fear:
    • Germs
    • The chemicals in cleaning products
    • Dust or dirt
    • Blood
    • Bugs
  • Fear of losing control. OCD sufferers often fear being in a situation where they get lost in compulsions, unable to get out of the loop. They also fear saying inappropriate things out loud or acting inappropriately in front of others.
  • Fear of harming others or self. Some people with OCD are plagued by disturbing mental images of violence and despair. They may fear becoming a victim or perpetrator of a violent or devastating act. They tend to think catastrophically. For example, they might worry about dreadful things like causing an accident or losing a child. They also fear for their own safety and health.
  • Fear of unstoppable thoughts. Many people with OCD symptoms fear their thoughts but can’t stop them. They may suffer from guilt about highly sexual or taboo thoughts. Or they might worry about offending God, their elders or their religion. They may also turn their most awful thoughts inward and think obsessively about harming themselves.
  • Fear of not being perfect. People with OCD have an extreme need for order in their environment. They are terrified of messes that may lead to losing important documents or items. They may also worry that they’ll forget something important.

Signs of OCD

The fears that are common with OCD often lead to certain behaviors. Friends and loved ones may notice the following signs and symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder:

  • Cleaning up and washing. The person may wash their hands over and over again or bathe or shower obsessively.
  • Repetitive acts. People with obsessive compulsive disorder often have repeated rituals. Examples include:
  • Tapping on a surface or parts of their body multiple times
  • Repeating an act, such as opening and closing a door over and over
  • Constant checking. These are often normal things that occur in daily life. But due to fear of undesired things happening, such as a fire or burglary, people with OCD may constantly need to check the stove or make sure the door is locked.
  • Mental compulsions. The signs of OCD may include thinking through the steps in a process over and over. This could include thoughts and visions of troublesome scenarios in order to head it off or heal it. The person may engage in mental inspections, believing if they look obsessively at every detail of a potential problem it can be prevented.
  • Desire for Symmetry and Order. These signs often include needing to have things in a certain order or place at all times. If anything is off-centered in the slightest, the person will experience great anxiety. These OCD signs may also include obsession with even numbers and doing things a certain number of times.
  • Hoarding. This style of OCD involves the inability to discard things without causing extreme anxiety. A person with this type of OCD may get extreme anxiety when thinking of throwing anything away.

People with OCD often have a blend of obsessive and compulsive symptoms. It is also possible for them to have one or the other. In addition, some people suffer involuntary physical or verbal tics. These are very upsetting to the person experiencing them and are misunderstood by people around them. This adds another layer of trauma around obsession compulsive disorder due to family and social rejection.

What Causes Symptoms of OCD?

It is unclear what causes OCD symptoms. Obsessive compulsive disorder is considered an anxiety disorder but is in a diagnosable category of its own. Researchers have done imaging studies to look at the brains of people with OCD-related compulsive behavior. They could see how certain parts of the brain get caught up in a behavior pattern. But they could not find evidence as to why this occurs. Another study showed people with OCD act out their repetitive behaviors even if their actions go against their beliefs. This pointed to their lack of control over obsessive compulsive behavior.

Help and Hope for OCD

Some people are aware of their OCD symptoms and others are not. The best way to help people with the disorder is by starting with a complete mental health evaluation. This way, the most effective OCD treatments can be put into place. Research has shown that exposure and response prevention (ERP) is one of the most effective forms of cognitive therapy for OCD. There are also many other therapies to explore. The person with OCD should also be evaluated for other underlying mental illness, such as eating disorders and substance abuse. Dual diagnosis is common. In these situations, inpatient rehab is often the best approach. You can begin to heal and learn to manage the conditions that have been a problem for so long.

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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