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We all have occasional anxious thoughts, and it’s not uncommon to be obsessed with something from time to time. But when these thoughts won’t go away and are accompanied by compulsive actions, it’s known as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Check out how you can deal with OCD and the tools available to help you manage it.

This can help if you:

  • frequently have unwanted, intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviours
  • think you might have OCD
  • want to manage your OCD
Boy in yellow shirt washing hands

What is OCD?

Anxious thoughts can influence your behaviour. This can be helpful when, for example, the thought ‘I may have left the iron on’ leads you to check to be sure that things are safe. When that thought keeps reoccurring and becomes obsessive, though, it can create unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Obsessively thinking ‘I may have left the iron on’ can lead to repeated checking even though you’ve seen that it’s turned off.

The feeling that you absolutely have to do things to ensure that everything is okay is known as a ‘compulsion’. These are acts that you feel like you have to act out – even if you don’t want to, and even if it unnecessarily complicates your life.

Signs and symptoms of OCD

Not all signs of OCD are easily noticed by others. However, there are some things you might see in a social context. For example:

  • following a strict routine
  • having trouble getting to work or social events on time due to excessive rituals
  • counting or finger tapping
  • repeating the same word, phrase or action
  • avoiding certain situations
  • avoiding shaking hands or touching things in public.

Some of the things people with OCD may be focused on include:

  • Cleanliness: obsessive household cleaning or hand-washing to reduce an intense fear of contamination.
  • Order: obsession with symmetry or order, with the compulsion to perform tasks or place objects in a particular place and/or pattern.
  • Safety/checking: obsessive fears about harm occurring to themselves or others, which can result in compulsive checking for things like the stove being turned off, or the doors and windows being locked.
  • Religious/moral issues: feeling the compulsion to pray a certain number of times a day or to the extent that it interferes with day-to-day life.
  • Sexual issues: having an irrational sense of disgust regarding sexual activity.

How can OCD impact your life?

In addition to feelings of anxiety and worry, compulsions can prevent you from going about your day-to-day life. Not being able to go to school or work, to join in social gatherings, or to exercise or take part in regular hobbies, is common.

It’s also common for people living with OCD to feel intense shame about their need to carry out their compulsions. These feelings can exacerbate the problem, and the secrecy involved in trying to hide OCD can delay help-seeking, diagnosis and treatment.

What causes OCD?

The causes of OCD aren’t fully understood, but it’s thought to develop mainly from genetic and environmental factors.

  • Genetic/biological factors – the body’s natural chemistry or brain functions, or a genetic component.
  • Environmental/learnt behaviours – research suggests that OCD may develop as the result of learnt behaviour. This includes direct conditioning (e.g. developing a washing compulsion after becoming sick from touching a contaminated object) or learning by watching the behaviour of others (e.g. parents).

Seeking treatment for OCD

If you’re feeling upset about having or potentially having OCD, remember that it’s treatable. Getting professional help is the first step towards recovery.

See your GP, tell them your concerns and talk with them about what’s going on. They’ll be able to tell you whether they think you have OCD and the next steps you can take in beginning to treat it.

There are two main treatments that are effective for OCD. Psychological therapy will generally be the first line of treatment. In some cases, medication can also be effective when prescribed in line with therapy. Get more information about treatments for anxiety disorders here.

Join a support group

One of the most distressing parts of having a mental illness is feeling like you’re in it alone. Thankfully, that’s not the case. A really great thing to do is to join a support group, where you can talk to other people who have OCD. You can find support groups in your area here.

What can I do now?