Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Signs and Symptoms

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is often referred to by the abbreviation OCD, is a mental health disorder that is characterised by intrusive thoughts and repeated actions. Individuals who struggle with OCD may feel compelled to engage in highly repetitive and apparently meaningless behaviours such as washing their hands over and over again, constantly checking and re-checking to ensure that doors have been locked, or repeatedly re-reading the same words or lines in a book.

These actions may be based on fears, such as contamination, risk of being robbed, or worries that they have not appropriately understood written information, but they go far beyond merely double-checking for accuracy. The thoughts and behaviours that are symptomatic of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can occupy significant amounts of time, and can cause the individual to feel as though they are incapable of stopping the actions or escaping the thoughts.

In a very real sense, a person who suffers from OCD is trapped by their own thoughts and behaviours. Without effective professional OCD treatment, some people who have developed OCD may be tempted to numb themselves to their psychological pain by abusing alcohol or other drugs. Unfortunately, the temporary respite that substance misuse may provide is offset by the additional problems that this behaviour can cause. People who engage in substance misuse as a means of self-medicating or escaping from OCD symptoms may find that their symptoms actually become worse, and may be further complicated by the development of a substance use disorder.

The good news is that with effective comprehensive professional care, individuals who have struggled with OCD can learn to manage their symptoms and experience a sense of freedom from the obsessions and compulsions that have previously overwhelmed their efforts to live a healthy, productive and satisfying life.


According to the NHS, experts estimate that about 1.2% of the UK population, or about 750,000 individuals, may currently be living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The mental health charity OCD-UK reports that about half of these cases are likely to involve severe symptoms. OCD-UK also reports that OCD appears to impact men and women at equal rates, though men typically begin to experience symptoms during their teens while women most commonly first experience OCD symptoms during their 20s.

Despite increased awareness of OCD, the charity notes that that the estimated prevalence of the disorder has been lowered in recent years, from as high as 3% of the UK population to the current 1.2%.

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Causes and risk factors for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The following are among the many causes and risk factors that can increase the likelihood that a person will develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

Considerable research demonstrates a strong genetic link to the development of OCD. For example, people who have a sibling or parent with OCD have twice the risk of also developing the disorder than do people whose close relatives do not have this disorder. Genetic abnormalities in the functioning of certain areas of the brain have also been identified as raising an individual’s risk of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Childhood trauma, especially physical and/or sexual abuse, has been identified as a strong environmental influence on the potential development of OCD. Certain infections and autoimmune issues may also raise the likelihood that a person will struggle with OCD.

Risk factors:

  • Family history of OCD and other mental health disorders
  • Childhood trauma
  • Being male (for early onset of OCD symptoms)
  • Being female (for later onset of OCD symptoms)
  • Negative emotionality
  • Behavioural inhibition

Signs and symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

OCD may reveal itself via a wide range of symptoms, including the following:

Obsessions, or intrusive thoughts:

  • Desire for order and symmetry
  • Fear of contamination
  • Fear of harm to oneself, one’s home, or another person
  • Fear of saying or doing something that upsets another person
  • Fear of not understanding
  • Fear of having inappropriate sexual thoughts
  • Magical thinking

Compulsions, which are the behavioural manifestations of obsessive thoughts:

  • Frequent or near-continuous cleaning of one’s surroundings
  • Excessively frequent showering, hand-washing, or other self-grooming
  • Repetitively checking to confirm that doors are locked, candles have been extinguished, lights have been turned off, and related actions
  • Hoarding
  • Repetitive counting or recitation of certain words
  • Avoiding certain people, places, or situations
  • Persistent efforts to keep items in order

Effects of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Individuals who fail to receive appropriate professional care for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may experience significant and wide-ranging negative effects and outcomes, including the following:

  • Declining and/or substandard occupational performance
  • Failure to meet occupational responsibilities
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Discord within family, marriage, and other meaningful relationships
  • Overall diminishment of quality of life
  • Substance misuse
  • Onset or worsening of co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Exacerbation of health problems due to fear of doctors and/or hospitals
  • Pervasive sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and/or despair
  • Social withdrawal, isolation, and/or ostracisation
  • Suicidal ideation

Co-occurring disorders

People who struggle with OCD may also be at increased risk for the following co-occurring mental health disorders:

  • Substance use disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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