We all have personal routines that we use to make life easier and keep ourselves safe. For example, laying our clothes out the night before to avoid rushing in the morning or double checking the door is locked when leaving the house.
However, people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) carry out compulsive, repetitive routines as a result of obsessive worries, which can have an impact on daily life.
Instead of checking a locked door once, for example, someone with OCD may check multiple times, or even obsessively worry to the point that it prevents them from leaving the house at all.
Here, we’ll explore what OCD is, what can cause it, and offer tips that can help overcome it.
What is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common mental health condition that causes obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.
People with OCD will typically experience repetitive, unwanted thoughts which they become obsessed by. This will then prompt extreme urges for that person to carry out certain behaviours for the purpose of relieving the unwanted thoughts.
OCD can affect men, women, and children and often develops during early adulthood – though some people aren’t properly diagnosed until later in life.
What are the symptoms of OCD?
OCD can be distressing, time-consuming, and interfere with daily life. It can also impact people’s relationships and leave them feeling ashamed or lonely. The two main symptoms of OCD can be separated into two main categories: obsessions and compulsions.
Generally speaking, obsessions are intrusive thoughts, doubts, images, or urges that can trigger feelings of anxiety, stress, or disgust in a person’s mind. Compulsions are the repetitive behaviours or mental acts that are done in response to the obsessive thoughts to relieve the negative feelings they cause.
For example, someone who has an obsessive fear of being burgled may compulsively check that all of the doors and windows in their house are locked several times before going to bed. In some cases, the worry may be so severe that they’re unable to sleep.
Many people with OCD are able to recognise that their worries are illogical (or at least very unlikely), but remain unable to stop them.
Common examples of OCD
Technically speaking, there aren’t any specific ‘types’ of OCD and the condition will look different for everyone.
However, experts have identified some particular areas that obsessions and compulsions tend to most commonly manifest in.
We’ll cover some of these below.
Fear of harm
This involves fearing harm coming to either themselves or a loved one – for example, obsessing over the thought of themselves or a loved one getting hurt in a car accident.
Compulsive behaviours in response to this could be anything used to prevent harm from occurring – for example, avoiding driving on motorways.
Fear of germs and contamination
People with this form of OCD may worry about touching or coming into contact with germs, dangerous materials, bodily fluids; or something that won’t necessarily harm them but is distasteful, like dirt.
This fear can lead to behaviours like compulsive hand-washing and cleaning, and avoiding particular situations and activities due to fear of germs.
Doubt over completing something
OCD can sometimes cause people to have recurring worries that they haven’t done something either correctly or completely.
For example, someone might doubt that they’ve turned the oven off when leaving the house. This type of obsession can trigger compulsive checking behaviours, such as checking that the oven is switched off multiple times.
Sexual or aggressive thoughts
People with this fear may obsessively worry about acting aggressively or experiencing violent images that won’t go away.
These thoughts can also be sexual and lead people to be fearful of experiencing troubling and unwanted sexual imagery or behaving inappropriately. This type of fear is often related to the fear of causing harm to others.
People with these types of obsessions are often prone to seeking reassurance from others that they’re good or that they haven’t done anything wrong.
Order, perfectionism, and symmetry
Having objects ordered in a specific way is another common type of obsession in OCD.
People with these obsessions may spend a significant amount of time arranging objects in a particular way or visualising symmetry. They may also hold superstitions around numbers, symmetry, and patterns – for example, not being able to have the television volume on an odd number.
What can cause OCD?
It’s not yet clear what causes OCD but there are a number of different factors that are thought to play a role – ranging from genetics to our environment.
- Having a parent or a sibling with OCD can increase your risk of developing it. This is because it’s common for children to pick up on behaviours they’re exposed to.
- Having painful childhood experiences; for example, being abused, bullied, or neglected, can sometimes lead people to develop OCD behaviours as a coping technique.
- Experiencing a traumatic, stressful, anxiety-provoking, or life-changing event such as starting a new job, moving to a new area, or going through bereavement.
- OCD can develop during pregnancy or in the first year after giving birth. This is known as perinatal OCD and generally relates to a mother obsessively worrying about harming her baby. Again, this can run in families.
- Some studies have suggested that OCD can be caused by biological factors – specifically, a lack of serotonin in the brain. However, research still remains inconclusive.
- Certain personality traits have been linked with a higher risk of developing OCD. For example, being very neat, meticulous, methodical, and setting high personal standards.
- OCD often occurs alongside other mental health conditions such as ADHD, social anxiety disorder, and depression. In fact, it’s estimated that around 90% of people with OCD also have another mental health condition. That being said, this isn’t always the case.
4 tips for coping with OCD
OCD can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. That’s why if you are struggling, it’s important to think about ways that may help you to cope.
Some people find that they’re able to significantly improve their OCD symptoms by making lifestyle changes and practising self-help methods like mindfulness.
If this is something you’d like to try, you could consider some of the options below.
1. Stay active
Most of us know of the many physical benefits of exercise, but research has found that it can also help relieve OCD symptoms.
For example, this study found that both the severity and frequency of OCD symptoms were reduced immediately after exercising.
To get inspired, you can head over to the fitness and exercise section of our website, which has plenty of fun ideas on how to stay active.
2. Consider journaling
Some people find that journaling helps to ease their OCD symptoms by providing a safe space to record their thoughts.
Research has also found that journaling can improve anxiety, mental distress, and well-being in participants suffering from OCD.
Check out our guide to journaling if you’d like to get started.
3. Prioritise good quality sleep
Sleep is essential for our health, and it has been found that poor quality sleep can worsen OCD symptoms.
For example, this study found that people with OCD who didn’t get a good night’s sleep struggled with their symptoms more the next day.
The NHS advises that adults get between seven and nine hours sleep per night. You’ll find plenty of help and advice on how to improve your sleep quality on the sleep and fatigue section of our website.
4. Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can be useful for reducing stress. When it comes to OCD, these techniques can help improve symptoms by encouraging people to take a moment, breathe, and take their focus away from intrusive thoughts.
What this looks like will be different for everyone, but some options to consider include breathing exercises for stress relief, mindfulness, and everyday activities that help you to stay in the present moment.
For example, research on mindfulness specifically has found that it can significantly improve symptoms of OCD; mainly by helping people ‘let go’ of unwanted thoughts.
For more ideas of what might help you relax, have a read of our article; 9 simple stress relieving activities.
I’m still struggling – can OCD be treated professionally?
If OCD is affecting your life and you’re struggling to create any positive changes alone, you might want to consider seeking professional help.
Generally speaking, there are two main treatment routes for OCD. The treatment recommended will depend on personal circumstances and how much OCD is affecting your life.
Psychological therapy for OCD is typically a type of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that includes exposure and response prevention (ERP). This involves working with a therapist to break down obsessive thoughts, explore the root cause, and learn how to neutralise them. While getting treatment can feel daunting, research has shown that psychological therapy for OCD can be very effective.
In cases where OCD is severe, medication may also be offered.
You can seek professional help by speaking with your doctor or referring yourself to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) directly. Alternatively, you can read more about treatment options for OCD on the NHS website.
In the meantime, you might like to visit the websites of national charities OCD Action or OCD-UK. Here you’ll find access to forums, helplines, and information on support groups where you can connect with other people going through similar experiences.
OCD can have a significant impact on daily life and feel difficult to cope with.
However, if you’re struggling, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone and that there’s support out there to help you. Whether that means practising self-help or seeking professional advice, just remember to always be kind to yourself and take it one step at a time.
For further reading, you can head over to the healthy mind section of our website, which has information on everything from finding meaning, purpose, and belonging to counselling and therapy.
What are your experiences of OCD? Have you found this article useful? We’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below.