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What is OCD? (3rd Section Is What You’re Looking For)

people holding signs saying OCD

What is OCD? (3rd section is the most information!)

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that affects people of all walks of life. It develops when a person becomes trapped in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are uninvited, intrusive thoughts, images, or desires that cause immense distress. Compulsions are activities that a person engages in in order to free himself or herself of obsessions and/or reduce distress.

Although most people have obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors at some point in their life, this does not suggest that we all suffer from “some OCD.” This cycle of obsessions and compulsions need to become so extreme that it consumes a lot of time and gets in the way of vital things that the person values in order to be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.

pencils and paperclips being pushed into a row OCD

What are obsessions and compulsions, exactly? What is OCD?

Obsessions are ideas, images, or urges that repeat themselves and feel out of control to the person. OCD clients despise having these ideas and find them distressing. The vast majority of the people with OCD are aware that their thoughts are illogical. Obsessions are often accompanied by strong and unpleasant emotions such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a sense that things must be done “exactly right.” Obsessions are time-consuming in the context of OCD, and they come in the way of crucial things that the person values. This last point is critical to remember since it helps to establish whether or not someone has OCD, a psychological disorder or a obsessive personality trait.

Unfortunately, the terms “obsessing” and “being obsessive” are frequently used in everyday conversation. Someone is obsessed with a topic, a concept, or even a person in some of the more casual applications of the word. In this context, “obsessed” does not imply issues in daily life and even has a delightful aspect to it. Despite being “obsessed” with a new song you hear on the radio, you can still meet a friend for dinner, get ready for bed on time, get to work on time in the morning, and so on. In fact, many with OCD have a hard time hearing this use of the word “obsession” since it makes them feel as if their struggle with OCD symptoms is being discounted.

Even if the content of the “obsession” is more severe, for example, everyone has had a passing thought of being sick, or worrying about the safety of a loved one, or wondering if a mistake they made would indeed be catastrophic in some way, these obsessions are not necessarily characteristics of OCD. While these ideas resemble those seen in OCD, someone without OCD may have them, be concerned for a short while, and then move on. In fact, research has revealed that most people have unwelcome “intrusive thoughts” on occasion, but in the case of OCD, these intrusive thoughts happen regularly and cause tremendous anxiety, interfering with daily functioning.

Common Obsessions in OCD

what is ocd, ocd symptoms, OCD

(More information can be found here)


  • Body fluids (examples: urine, feces)
  • Germs/disease (examples: herpes, HIV)
  • Environmental contaminants (examples: asbestos, radiation)
  • Household chemicals (examples: cleaners, solvents)
  • Dirt

Losing Control

  • Fear of acting on an impulse to harm oneself
  • Fear of acting on an impulse to harm others
  • Fear of violent or horrific images in one’s mind
  • Fear of blurting out obscenities or insults
  • Fear of stealing things


  • Fear of being responsible for something terrible happening (examples: fire, burglary)
  • Fear of harming others because of not being careful enough (example: dropping something on the ground that might cause someone to slip and hurt him/herself)

Obsessions Related to Perfectionism

  • Concern about evenness or exactness
  • Concern with a need to know or remember
  • Fear of losing or forgetting important information when throwing something out
  • Inability to decide whether to keep or to discard things
  • Fear of losing things

Unwanted Sexual Thoughts

  • Forbidden or perverse sexual thoughts or images
  • Forbidden or perverse sexual impulses about others
  • Sexual obsessions that involve children or incest
  • Obsessions about aggressive sexual behavior towards others

Religious Obsessions (Scrupulosity)

  • Concern with offending God, or concern about blasphemy
  • Excessive concern with right/wrong or morality

Other Obsessions

  • Obsessions about one’s sexual orientation.
  • Concern with getting a physical illness or disease (not by contamination, e.g. cancer)
  • Superstitious ideas about lucky/unlucky numbers certain colors

What is Compulsiveness in OCD?

The second aspect of obsessive compulsive disorder is compulsions. These are habitual activities or beliefs that a person engages in in order to neutralize, negate, or eliminate their obsessions. People with OCD are aware that this is simply a short solution, but in the absence of a better coping mechanism, they rely on compulsion as a means of temporary relief. Avoiding events that provoke obsessions can also be a compulsion. Compulsions take up time and interfere with key tasks that a person cherishes.

Not all repetitive activities or “rituals” are compulsions, just as not all obsessions are. You must consider the behavior’s function as well as its surroundings. Bedtime routines, religious activities, and learning a new skill, for example, all need some level of repetition, but they are usually a positive and functional part of everyone ’s life. The context determines how people act.  If you are a stickler for details or enjoy having things well organized, you may exhibit “compulsive” tendencies that do not fall under OCD. “Compulsive” in this situation refers to a personality trait or a feature of yourself that you truly appreciate.

Common Compulsions in OCD

washing hands

(More information can be found here)

Washing and Cleaning

  • Washing hands excessively or in a certain way
  • Excessive showering, bathing, tooth-brushing, grooming ,or toilet routines
  • Cleaning household items or other objects excessively
  • Doing other things to prevent or remove contact with contaminants


  • Checking that you did not/will not harm others
  • Checking that you did not/will not harm yourself
  • Checking that nothing terrible happened
  • Checking that you did not make a mistake
  • Checking some parts of your physical condition or body


  • Rereading or rewriting
  • Repeating routine activities (examples: going in or out doors, getting up or down from chairs)
  • Repeating body movements (example: tapping, touching, blinking)
  • Repeating activities in “multiples” (examples: doing a task three times because three is a “good,” “right,” “safe” number)

Mental Compulsions

  • Mental review of events to prevent harm (to oneself others, to prevent terrible consequences)
  • Praying to prevent harm (to oneself others, to prevent terrible consequences)
  • Counting while performing a task to end on a “good,” “right,” or “safe” number
  • “Cancelling” or “Undoing” (example: replacing a “bad” word with a “good” word to cancel it out)

Other Compulsions

  • Putting things in order or arranging things until it “feels right”
  • Telling asking or confessing to get reassurance
  • Avoiding situations that might trigger your obsessions

man kneeling with numbered boxes OCD

This is all meant to be educational. If you think you might suffer from OCD, please contact your healthcare provider and speak with them about the symptoms you are experiencing.


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