People with OCD may have symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both. These symptoms can interfere with all aspects of life, such as work, school, and personal relationships.

However, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a long-term mental health condition that is usually associated with two things: Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

  • Obsessions: An obsession is an unwanted, unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters a person’s mind. It’s usually frightening or upsetting and, because they can’t shake it, it makes them feel incredibly anxious.
  • We all have unpleasant thoughts from time to time but these obsessions completely overwhelm the person with OCD and can interrupt their daily lives.
  • Some common obsessions include a fear of harming themselves or others either deliberately or by mistake, the fear of contamination by disease or germs and even the need for everything to be in perfect order.
  • Compulsions: These are the repetitive behaviours or mental acts that a person feels compelled to perform to try to avoid or undo the effect of the obsession. 
  • Most people are aware that their behaviour is unrealistic or out of control but can’t stop acting on the compulsion.
  • OCD is actually one of the most common mental health conditions in the world. It’s estimated that up to three in 100 adults and up to five in 100 children and teenagers have OCD. 

Some individuals with OCD also have a tic disorder. Motor tics are sudden, brief, repetitive movements, such as eye blinking and other eye movements, facial grimacing, shoulder shrugging, and head or shoulder jerking. Common vocal tics include repetitive throat-clearing, sniffing, or grunting sounds.


Most of us, at some point, will have unpleasant or unwanted worrying thoughts or thoughts that make us anxious. This can be thinking you may have forgotten to lock the door of the house. You can even have sudden unwelcome violent or offensive mental images. Many of these thoughts go away as quickly as they appear.

However, you may have an obsession if you have a persistent, unpleasant thought that takes over your thinking. This thought may interrupt all your other thoughts. It can make it hard for you to focus on other daily activities.

You may have unwanted sexual thoughts or images which you fear you may act on. While these thoughts can cause extreme distress, it doesn’t mean you will act on them.

Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety. Common symptoms include:

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion, or harm
  • Aggressive thoughts towards others or self
  • Having things symmetrical or in a perfect order
  • fear of deliberately harming yourself or others
  • intense worry about catching a disease or infection
  • thinking about having to do things in a certain order or number of times to feel safe and reduce anxiety.


Compulsions are things you do or ways you behave in response to the thoughts that make you anxious. The actions usually provide relief from the distress for a short while. 

For example, if you are afraid of catching germs, you may wash your hands over and over again. Washing your hands reduces the worry that you have germs on your hands. But as that thought comes back, the urge to wash your hands increases again.

People with OCD know that compulsive behaviour is irrational (does not make sense). But they do it because it reduces distress for a short while.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. Common compulsions include:

  • Excessive cleaning and/or handwashing
  • Ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way
  • Repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked or that the oven is off
  • Counting and doing the same thing many times
  • Ordering and arranging
  • Hoarding
  • thinking ‘neutralising’ thoughts to counter the obsessive thoughts
  • avoiding places and situations that could trigger obsessive thoughts
  • Repeating words in their head

Not all rituals or habits are compulsions. Everyone double checks things sometimes. But a person with OCD generally:

  • Can’t control his or her thoughts or behaviours, even when those thoughts or behaviours are recognized as excessive
  • Spends at least 1 hour a day on these thoughts or behaviours
  • Doesn’t get pleasure when performing the behaviours or rituals, but may feel brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause
  • Experiences significant problems in their daily life due to these thoughts or behaviours

Where to look for help

Get help if you think you have OCD and it’s having a negative impact on your life.

If you think a friend has OCD, find out if their thoughts or behaviours are causing problems for them. For example, in their daily routines and quality of life.

OCD is unlikely to get better on its own. Treatment and support can help you manage your symptoms. To get help, talk to your GP. They can refer you to local psychological support services

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