It’s a common myth that OCD is always about germs – and that people with OCD always have obvious ‘rituals’ to do with cleaning or other stereotypes like putting things in order. The reality is that people’s experiences of OCD are much more diverse.
What is OCD?
OCD stands for obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s a type of anxiety disorder that involves ‘obsessions’ (thoughts, feelings, or urges) and compulsions (doing or thinking things to reduce the anxiety caused by obsessions).
Most people (including people without OCD or any other anxiety disorder) experience repeating intrusive thoughts, feelings, or urges sometimes – including ones that are violent or upsetting. It’s really common – and not something you need to feel guilty or ashamed about.
For people with OCD, these unwanted ‘obsessions’ are especially distressing or anxiety-inducing. This might be because they’re repetitive, or because the person with OCD worries about whether their obsession means something about them (for example, whether they’re ‘dangerous’ or ‘mad’ or ‘bad’).
People with OCD aren’t dangerous. If you experience these kinds of obsessions, it’s important to remember this; your obsessions are just thoughts and having them does not mean you will act on them.
Some people with OCD do have obsessions about contamination or germs – but obsessions can also be about lots of other things. For example, people might have obsessions around others being harmed (in ways not to do with contamination), violence, or the consequences of forgetting to do an everyday action like locking a door or switching something off.
People with OCD usually try to help themselves cope with the distress their obsessions cause by doing (or thinking) something that brings relief. When someone has OCD, these ‘compulsions’ become something they have to do – even if they’re getting in the way of their everyday life or hurting them.
If you have OCD, you might start to believe that compulsions might get rid of the anxiety you feel as a result of your obsessions, make the obsessive thoughts, feelings or urges go away altogether, or even stop things you worry about from happening.
Some compulsions can involve cleaning (including handwashing) – some people ask ‘is OCD always about germs’ – but this isn’t the case. Some compulsions involve other obvious and visible actions like checking switches, asking for reassurance, or arranging things in a specific order. But people with OCD might keep their compulsions private, and some compulsions are totally invisible, such as going back over memories, repeating something in your head, or trying to think certain thoughts on purpose.
Some people with OCD know that their compulsions don’t make logical sense – but they still feel like they have to do them.
Examples of obsessions and compulsions
Some people might not want to read these examples, which include details about specific obsessions and compulsions people can experience. Skip ahead to read about recovering from OCD.
Someone might have a violent thought about harming someone else in a specific way. They might go back through their memories throughout the day to check they haven’t done anything harmful or hurt themselves to ‘make up’ for the obsession.
Someone might doubt whether their relationship is right, or whether their (or their partner’s) feelings are strong enough. They might ‘check’ whether they’re in love with their partner or keep track of things their partner says or does.
Someone might worry that they’ll get food poisoning. They might avoid eating food anyone else has prepared, avoid certain types of food, or frequently check things like use by dates or food temperatures when cooking.
Someone might worry that they’ve posted something abusive or hateful online. They might check their social media accounts frequently or have a set routine they feel they have to follow to put their phone away ‘safely’.
Someone might experience intrusive thoughts or images of a sexual nature – these might be related to children, family members, or sexually aggressive behaviour. They might check how they feel or how their body responds when these obsessions come up, check whether the thoughts are ‘gone’, or avoid situations with certain people.
Someone might worry that a loved one will be involved in an accident. They might feel they need to repeat a phrase or prayer in their head to ‘keep their loved one safe’ or they might repeatedly ask their loved one for reassurance that they’re OK.
The cycle of OCD
Compulsions usually begin as a way to cope with obsessions – and they can temporarily reduce anxiety or distress. But we know that the obsession and the feelings around it come back afterwards. The anxiety often returns to a higher degree, and people can end up feel ‘stuck’ in a loop or cycle where they feel unable to stop doing the same compulsions over and over again. This ‘stuck’ feeling is often scary or distressing – and can add more anxiety to a situation that’s already difficult.
Recovering from OCD
The good news is that it’s possible to recover from OCD. Recovery looks different for everyone – it usually depends on what the person values and what they want their life to look like.
Some people with OCD find that their symptoms get quieter (or go away altogether), while other people live with symptoms of OCD but manage them so they don’t take over their lives.
If you’re experiencing obsessive thoughts or compulsions, it’s important to ask for help. The first step is usually to talk to an adult you trust, like a parent, carer, or teacher. They can help you make an appointment with a GP (or help you access mental health support in your area). These sorts of symptoms can happen for different reasons, including other types of anxiety disorder – talking to someone who understands a lot about mental health, will help you make sense of your experiences so you can start feeling better.
If you don’t feel ready to speak to someone you know, you can always text NATTER to 85258 to get support from a trained volunteer through text. It’s confidential, anonymous, and free. Find more urgent support on the get help now page.
It can feel scary to tell someone about obsessions and compulsions, but there are resources to help you explain what you’re experiencing.
Whoever you’re speaking to, you might find the Doc Ready website helpful to prepare for the conversation.
The charity OCD-UK has also created a document to help people tell their GP about their obsessions or compulsions. They recognise that certain ‘OCD thoughts’ of a violent or sexual nature can be especially difficult to talk about, so there’s a version of the document that goes into more detail about them.