How to deal with OCD

We all have occasional intrusive thoughts - those unwanted thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere - and it’s common to behave in unnecessarily careful ways at times. But when these thoughts are causing you distress, won’t go away and interrupt your everyday life, and the thoughts 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

young person in a black shirt with headphones on using their laptop

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common anxiety disorder.

It causes someone to have thoughts, concerns and fears that would ordinarily be considered excessive or disproportionate (‘obsessions’). A person with OCD will try to resolve these thoughts by creating rituals, and they will feel internal pressure (or ‘compulsion’) to perform them.

What are obsessions and compulsions?

A person has OCD when they experience obsessions which lead to compulsions.

In the context of OCD, ‘obsessions’ refers to the persistent patterns of unwanted thoughts and anxieties, rather than just a passion or curiosity about something.

Everyday anxious thoughts 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. But people with OCD will experience these intrusive thoughts more frequently, and the thoughts are extremely stubborn. Even after checking the iron is off, they might still find themselves thinking that they need to check again. This is what can lead to constant, repeated checking, and potentially other behaviours in response to those thoughts.

The feeling that you absolutely have to do something to ensure that everything is okay, or to provide a sense of relief from obsessive thoughts, is known as a ‘compulsion’.

These are repeated 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 and causes you distress.

Signs and symptoms of OCD

Some examples of obsessions that people with OCD may experience include:

  • fear of illness or injury

  • fears about harm coming to themselves or their family members

  • fear of losing control and harming themselves or others

  • fixations on spiritual or religious subjects, such as a fear of judgement from God or another deity

  • fears that intrusive sexual thoughts which are immoral or taboo may be reflective of their actual desires (when that isn’t the case)

  • fears about their sexual orientation

Some examples of compulsions that people with OCD may experience as a result of the obsessive thoughts:

  • Cleanliness - obsessive household cleaning or hand-washing to reduce fears of contamination.

  • Order - obsession with symmetry, routine or order, with the compulsion to perform tasks or place objects in a particular place and/or pattern (and difficulties coping if this order or routine is disrupted)

  • 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 matters - feeling constant compulsions to repeatedly perform religious or spiritual behaviours (like praying) to the extent that it interferes with day-to-day life.

  • Sexual issues - refusal to engage in sexual behaviours due to fears about their sexuality, or be present around people they might have sexual thoughts about due to concerns about their own behaviour.

  • Removing dangers - hiding objects that could be used to harm themselves or others.

  • Cognitive habits - frequently reviewing lists, suppressing ‘bad’ thoughts, thinking special words or sayings, or excessively reviewing and analysing certain thoughts, doubts, or past situations.

What causes OCD?

It’s not clear what causes OCD, but factors in the brain’s structure and chemistry, genetic factors, and environmental factors are thought to play a part.

This means that if you experience OCD, you’re not at fault in any way – there’s a variety of factors that could have helped to create obsessions and compulsive behaviours.

For more information and resources on this, check out OCD Australia.

How can OCD impact your life?

In addition to feelings of anxiety and worry, obsessions and compulsions can cause distress and prevent you from going about your day-to-day life. It’s common for people with OCD to have difficulties with going to school or work, attending social events, or taking part in exercise or other regular hobbies.

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

Seeking treatment for OCD

If you’re feeling upset about having or potentially having OCD, remember: it is treatable, and you’re not alone in this. Getting professional help is the first step towards recovery.

The best first step is see your GP, and talk with them about what’s going on. They’ll be able to talk to you about a diagnosis of OCD, and what the next steps are for beginning to treat it.

There are two main treatments that are effective for OCD: psychological therapy will usually be the first line of treatment.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is one particularly effective type of therapy used to treat OCD. It involves talking to a therapist and developing a plan to confront some of the fears you experience without performing compulsive behaviours that go along with them. This may sound troubling, but something that helps is that initially, this is done in the presence of a mental health professional, so you won’t be doing it alone.

This type of therapy may not be available where you live - if so, the best thing to do is look up mental health professionals who specialise in treating people with OCD.

The secondary line of treatment is medication. Medication can be effective for some people with OCD, and is usually prescribed in addition to some form of psychological therapy.

Get extra support for OCD

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 – there’s lots of different types of support out there.

One 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.

There are also OCD support programs for young people available, like this online treatment program from Curtin University or the ‘OCD Stop’ program via Mental Health Online. There’s lots of different types of programs available - you can find more by resources and OCD support programs and organisations via OCD Australia.

What can I do now?