What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition where you have recurring obsessions, compulsions, or both.

What are obsessions?

Obsessions are unpleasant thoughts, images, or urges that keep coming into your mind. Obsessions are not simply worries about your life problems. Common obsessions include:

  • Fears about contamination with dirt, germs, viruses (eg HIV), etc.
  • Worries about doors being unlocked, fires left on, causing harm to someone, etc.
  • Intrusive thoughts or images of swearing, blasphemy, sex, someone harmed, etc.
  • Fear of making a mistake or behaving badly.
  • A need for exactness in how you order or arrange things.
  • A compulsion to collect things that others might throw away (hoarding).

These are examples. Obsessions can be about all sorts of things. Obsessive thoughts can make you feel anxious or disgusted. You normally try to ignore or suppress obsessive thoughts; for example, you may try to think other thoughts to neutralise the obsession.

What are compulsions?

Compulsions are thoughts or actions that you feel you must do or repeat. Usually the compulsive act is in response to an obsession. A compulsion is a way of trying to deal with the distress or anxiety caused by an obsession.

For example, you may wash your hands every few minutes in response to an obsessional fear about germs. Another example is you may keep on checking that doors are locked, in response to the obsession about doors being unlocked. Other compulsions include repeated cleaning, counting, touching, saying words silently, arranging and organising - but there are others.