What are the Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that is primarily characterized by a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.

A person with this condition will often experience symptoms of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. These symptoms range in severity.

This article looks at the most common symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and how to recognize them. 

Signs & Symptoms 

Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder can broadly be categorized into obsessions and compulsions.

  • Obsessions: Repeated and unwanted thoughts that a person with OCD finds distressing
  • Compulsion: Behaviors (mental or physical) that people perform in order to remove the distress brought about by experiencing an obsession

In severe cases, symptoms of OCD are disruptive and can severely affect the quality of life of a person who has the condition.

What Are Obsessions? 

Obsessions

Obsessions are intrusive thoughts that a person with OCD might experience and typically manifest in different ways for a person with the disorder. These thoughts often cause emotional distress and anxiety.

You might already be familiar with intrusive thoughts.For instance, an image of your car swerving off the road might pop in your head while approaching a difficult bend in the road. However, for people with OCD, these types of thoughts are persistent and disruptive. These thoughts vary from person to person and can be offensive or violent.

A person with OCD can also have several obsessions simultaneously. 

Some common examples of obsessive thoughts people with this condition experience include: 

  • Thoughts of self-harm or causing harm to others
  • Thoughts of being contaminated with germs or dirt and getting sick 
  • Inappropriate sexual thoughts
  • Obsessively thinking of the symmetry and order of things. 
  • Aggressive or violent thoughts
  • Thought about the orderliness and symmetry of innocuous objects, like pens on a desk
  • Obsessive thoughts about religion

What Are Compulsions?

Compulsions

Compulsions are often repetitive behaviors people with OCD use to cope with the distress and anxiety brought on by obsessive and intrusive thoughts.

However, people with the condition don't realize that performing compulsive behaviors does little to rid them of the obsessive thoughts or the distress brought on by it. This is what causes the cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

For instance, a person who has obsessive thoughts of causing harm to others might have a compulsion to check if the appliances in a house have been turned off before leaving the house several times.

Another example is a person who fears getting sick from contamination. They might wash their hands several times a day, trying to neutralize this obsession. However, they only get temporary relief after each time they perform the compulsion.

Compulsions could be physically manifested behaviors such as hand washing or mental compulsions such as repeated counting. Some common examples of compulsive behavior include: 

  • Arranging and rearranging things repeatedly or in specific ways
  • Excessive and repeated hand washing
  • Hoarding things that typically have little or no value
  • Checking and rechecking things frequently (e.g., checking to make sure the door is locked)
  • Following routines in a specific order
  • Doing certain things a specific number of times (e.g., constantly chewing food precisely six times before swallowing)

It's critical to distinguish habits and routines from compulsions. While some people without OCD have habits and routines they perform repeatedly, a person with OCD has no control over their compulsive behaviors. Without engaging in the behaviors, they are often unable to function. They also derive no pleasure or satisfaction from these behaviors. They only bring a temporary reprieve to the distress brought on by obsessive and intrusive thoughts.

Other Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 

Although obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors are the primary symptoms a person with OCD experiences, some people might also develop tics due to the condition. Tics are sudden and repetitive moments your body makes that are often beyond control.

Tic may manifest in different ways and can vary from person to person. While one person might experience head jerking, another might experience uncontrollable blinking. Other common tics include: 

  • Sniffing 
  • Grunting 
  • Shrugging
  • Grimacing
  • Throat clearing

Some people with OCD might experience suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know with OCD is experiencing suicidal thoughts due to the condition, it's essential to contact your healthcare provider. 

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Complications and Comorbidities 

While you can't prevent symptoms of OCD, you can avoid behaviors that can aggravate your symptoms. For instance, drinking alcohol or not getting enough sleep could worsen the severity of your symptoms. In some cases, people with OCD might also develop other mental health conditions. Some of the most common disorders that have been found to co-occur with OCD include:

Frequently Asked Questions About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 

Here are some answers to some frequently asked questions related to OCD.

  • What's the difference between an intrusive thought and an obsessive thought?: While an intrusive thought is often fleeting, an obsessive thought is intrusive and recurring. People without OCD might occasionally experience intrusive thoughts and can often dismiss them. However, a person with OCD can't simply dismiss an intrusive thought. 
  • Can I prevent symptoms of OCD? Unfortunately, there's no way for symptoms of OCD to be prevented if you have the condition. However, with proper diagnosis and treatment, you can reduce the severity of your symptoms. 
  • Can I manage symptoms of OCD myself? OCD is a mental health condition that requires proper treatment by a qualified healthcare professional. If you suspect you or someone you know has OCD, it's best to speak to your healthcare provider about it. After which, a proper diagnosis and treatment plan will be made. 
6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.