What is OCD? Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and how to get help

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, more commonly known as OCD, is an anxiety disorder that causes obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

Anyone can be affected by OCD – including men, women and children. Some will experience symptoms early in life, while others only start to notice them in adult life.

Either way, having OCD can be distressing, and depending on the severity it can have a massive impact on a person’s life.

But the good news is that there are various treatments that can help keep it under control.

In order to receive the correct treatment, it’s important to recognise the signs and symptoms of OCD.

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder that has two main parts – obsessions and compulsions.

According to a definition by the charity Mind, obsessions are “unwelcome thoughts, images, urges, worries or doubts that repeatedly appear in your mind”.

These thoughts can make you feel very anxious, however some people describe this as “mental discomfort”, rather than anxiety.

Meanwhile, compulsions are “repetitive activities that you do to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession”.

Mind continues: “It could be something like repeatedly checking a door is locked, repeating a specific phrase in your head or checking how your body feels.”

What are the symptoms of OCD?

Those who have OCD will likely experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour.

The Mental Health Foundation has listed some common obsessions experienced by those who have OCD. They include:

  • fear of contamination
  • fear of causing harm to someone else
  • needing things to be balanced or in the right order
  • intrusive thoughts or images that may be violent, blasphemous or taboo

Common compulsions people may experience include:

  • checking things repeatedly – this could include checking the oven is off, looking up health symptoms online or making sure you have your keys on you
  • cleaning things excessively
  • counting to a particular number or going through a sequence of numbers
  • carrying something out in a particular order or pattern, or a certain number of times
  • asking people for reassurance or to check things for you

Having OCD can also make the person feel scared, disgusted, tearful or depressed.

What causes OCD?

It’s not fully known what causes OCD, but there are several different theories about the matter.

According to Mind, these theories can’t fully explain every person’s experience, but researchers suggest they could play a role in causing OCD.

Some theories suggest that OCD could be brought on by a personal experience, such as childhood trauma, abuse or bullying.

Perinatal OCD can sometimes be brought on by pregnancy or giving birth.

Alternatively, if a person’s parents had similar anxieties, research has found that this behaviour could be learned as a coping technique.

Some also suggest that people with certain personality traits may be more likely to have OCD, such as someone who is neat and meticulous.

There are also biological theories which suggest the lack of the brain chemical serotonin could have a role in causing the condition.

How to get help with OCD

The NHS lists two main ways you can get help to manage OCD.

Firstly, you can refer yourself directly to a psychological therapies service if you are aged 18 or over and living in England.

Alternatively, you can see a GP, and tell them about your symptoms. They will let you know whether they can refer you to a local psychological therapies service.

You could also find mental health apps and tools in the NHS apps library.

There are some effective treatments for OCD that can help reduce the impact it has on a person’s life.

For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help someone face their fears and obsessive thoughts.

NHS also says medicine, usually a type of antidepressant, can help by altering the balance of chemicals.

Mind’s helplines provide information and support by phone and email.

You cal call Mind’s info line at 0300 123 3393, or email info@mind.org.uk. Their info line is open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays).