I Wash My Hands a Lot, Do I Have OCD?

You can’t sit down at the dinner table without washing your hands first. Nothing annoys you more than when a public restroom fails to refill its soap dispensers. Sometimes you start to wonder if your attention to hygiene is actually something else — like OCD.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder has many symptoms, and can look different from one person to the next. In some cases, someone’s condition becomes so severe their whole life seems to fall apart out of nowhere. Others live with OCD for years without anyone knowing. They might not even know they have it themselves.

Read on to find out if your preference for cleanliness is a sign of something serious.

What is it like to have OCD?

Couple cleaning Couple cleaning | Milkos/iStock/Getty Images

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. Though people with OCD might experience classic anxiety symptoms such as panic attacks, what makes this chronic condition different from other forms of anxiety is the ongoing cycle of obsessive thoughts — and the compulsive behaviors that accompany them.

Though it’s not the only sign someone has OCD, excessive hand-washing is a good example when trying to understand what it feels like to have this condition.

Someone who washes their hands over and over again is exhibiting what’s called a compulsive behavior. This occurs in response to an obsession — which, in this case, might be an irrational fear of germs.

Worrying about germs is a thought pattern a person with OCD might not be able to escape just by thinking about something else. The only way they can find relief is to respond with a behavior that attempts to satisfy that worry — washing their hands excessively to avoid germs.

If you wash your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, or in other situations that might expose you to germs, you probably don’t have OCD. Good hygiene isn’t a mental disorder. But if you can’t stop thinking about what could happen to you if you don’t wash or sanitize your hands ASAP — and only feel better when you do — you might.

Not everyone with OCD is obsessed with germs

Worrying about or fearing contamination and germs is just one kind of obsession that can lead to compulsions. Others might include:

  • Fear of losing things
  • Having things in perfect order
  • Worries about being harmed or harm coming to those close to you
  • Unwanted, invasive thoughts about religion, sex, and more.

In an attempt to cope with these obsessions, someone living with OCD might clean excessively, repeatedly count things, hoard objects, check that the oven is off or the door is locked over and over again, or compulsively arrange objects in a certain order.

Can OCD cause other health problems?

Anxiety disorder Anxiety disorder | iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

Like many other mental health issues, OCD can have major health consequences beyond anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide — though these are still significant and harmful complications.

Though symptoms vary in severity, and everyone’s experiences are different, obsessive thoughts and uncontrollable compulsions can cause strained relationships and difficulty attending work or school. Someone preoccupied with the possibility their food might be contaminated could severely limit their options and become malnourished.

Thankfully, a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy is a proven method for treating OCD. This type of therapy teaches you how to respond in a more constructive way to certain thoughts, instead of turning to potentially harmful behaviors.

It’s possible to lead a long, successful life with OCD. With the right treatment, many people can learn to avoid the behaviors that once ruled their days.

Some of us like things to be in a certain order, can’t leave the house without hand sanitizer, and hope our loved ones stay safe. That doesn’t mean we’re all “a little bit OCD.” When thoughts and behaviors become obsessive, though, you have a right to worry.

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