How to know when it’s OCD (Trigger warning: OCD)

Updated: Oct 4

“I need to tidy up. I’m OCD about mess.”

“Oh, please don’t get all OCD about this.”

“Don’t be silly, you don’t have OCD. Your room is a tip!”

It’s a term thrown around like it’s going out of fashion. Obsessive compulsive disorder, often shortened to OCD, is a mental health disorder, propelling and forcing those experiencing it to carry out rituals and habits, which those not experiencing would perhaps consider to be strange or useless. However, to those living with OCD, these practices are essential, repetitive, fatiguing, and addictive.

So, is it fair, then, to label yourself as a sufferer from OCD, simply because you like to live in a clean environment, or because you wash your hands a lot?

OCD is much more complicated than a desire to be clean. However, as explained by consultant psychiatrist, Dr Paul McLaren, this is a common aspect of the disorder, and handwashing becomes a compulsion when it is carried out excessively, and through fear of being contaminated by germs. (1) While the desperate desire to be clean affects many people who suffer from OCD, it is a common misconception that this encapsulates the entirety of the disorder. So, if it’s not just about being clean, what is it all about?

There are many different obsessions and compulsions that individuals living with OCD experience, but the main ones can be said to be as follows.

Checking. OCD frequently involves checking taps, switches, doors, lights, locks. Sounds sensible, right? These checking rituals evidently come from a good place; the desire to make sure nothing floods, catches fire, or that the house doesn’t get burgled.

Order and symmetry. People experiencing OCD can feel the need to arrange and place objects in a certain way. They feel the need to repeatedly realign and count objects.

Hoarding. OCD often involves the excessive collection of insignificant items, which can result in large amounts of clutter.

Many of us have experienced moments of asking ourselves whether we forgot to turn the tap off after brushing our teeth, or whether we left the hob on. Was that OCD? What about that time when we tidied our house until it looked perfect, was that OCD? What about that time we didn’t want to throw away a childhood toy we didn’t use anymore, was that OCD? Clearly, there is an overlap between the habits of those with OCD and more the general acts of attentiveness which appear for most individuals in daily life. So how can you know, what is OCD, and what is standard sensible vigilance?

Psych Central has suggested some questions it might be worth asking yourself, to help to decipher between the two, if you feel you are unsure.

  • Do you have repetitive and intrusive thoughts or impulses that you find disturbing or scary?

  • Are you constantly worrying about dirt, germs, chemicals, mould, or other potentially harmful substances?

  • Do you often think that you’ve forgotten to do something important and worry about the consequences?

  • Do you have to repeat actions or phrases over and over again to ease anxiety?

  • Do you need things to be symmetrical or ordered in a specific way?

(2)

If you suspect that you may have OCD, consider whether this OCD sequence evokes any feelings of familiarity for you.

A typical OCD cycle has four stages: obsession, anxiety, compulsion, relief. The first stage involves unwanted, upsetting thoughts (obsession), which lead to a discomforting feeling that something must be done (anxiety). This triggers the behaviour, often performed repetitively, which is intended to correct the upsetting thought and relieve the anxiety (compulsion). After all this, the individual carrying out the cycle can expect to feel some relief. The alleviation of discomfort is, sadly, only very short lived. And soon the cycle will begin again. (3)

Leaving OCD untreated can lead to depression, physical illness, damage to relationships, lateness for work and school, and loss of time and energy due to obsessions and compulsions. If you suspect that you have OCD, please don’t hesitate to seek treatment.

OCD can be treated through therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy. This therapy endeavours to have the patient ‘face their fears’, by experiencing the intrusive thoughts calling for compulsive behaviours to be carried out, however resisting their implementation. Additionally, in some circumstances, medicine can be used as a treatment for OCD, which will serve to alter the balance of chemicals in the brain. (4)

While depression and anxiety are equally burdensome illnesses, they are perhaps not misunderstood to the same extent as OCD, which is why it is essential that the discussion on OCD must be continued and addressed in society. According to one article from The Independent, around three-quarters of a million people in the UK are living with OCD at any one time – around 1.2% of the population. (5) So, if you are experiencing it, you are far from alone.


1. Priory. 2022. OCD: why some people suffer with it, is it on the rise and can it be treated? A Priory expert answers. [online] Available at: <https://www.priorygroup.com/media-centre/ocd-why-some-people-suffer-with-it-is-it-on-the-rise-and-can-it-be-treated-a-priory-expert-answers> [Accessed 16 June 2022].

2. Bettino, K., 2022. How Do I Know if I Have OCD? Signs, Types, and Diagnosis. [online] Psych Central. Available at: <https://psychcentral.com/ocd/how-do-i-know-if-i-have-obsessive-compulsive-disorder> [Accessed 16 June 2022].

3. Mytransformations.com. 2020. TMS for OCD: Everything You Need to Know. [online] Available at: <https://www.mytransformations.com/post/tms-for-ocd-everything-you-need-to-know> [Accessed 16 June 2022].

4. nhs.uk. 2019. Treatment - Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/treatment/> [Accessed 16 June 2022].

5. Connor, L., 2021. It’s not just about being clean and tidy. What OCD really means and how to seek support. [online] Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/ocd-mind-world-health-organisation-tuppence-middleton-covid-b1900568.html> [Accessed 16 June 2022].

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