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What is OCD?

 OCD - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder written in notebook on wooden background

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that affects around 850,000 people in the UK.

Although it can be distressing and have a severe effect on everyday life, there are treatments that can help to keep OCD under control.

A common myth with OCD is that it is characterised by an obsession with cleaning or order. While some people do display these symptoms, not everyone who faces OCD will.

What are the symptoms of OCD?

People with OCD experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours:

  • Obsession – unwelcome thoughts, ideas or urges that appear repeatedly in the mind and interrupt everyday thinking.
  • Compulsion – repetitive activities that the individual feels they have to do, usually to ‘put right’ the anxiety and distress caused by the obsessive thoughts.

Obsessive thoughts can be frightening, graphic or disturbing. It’s important to remember that they don’t reflect your personality and that having thoughts doesn’t mean you’ll act on them.

Common obsessive thoughts include:

  • Fear of harming yourself or others (deliberately or by accident)
  • Worries about doing something violent or abusive
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts or images
  • Fear that you or a loved one may be contaminated, for example by dirt, bacteria or disease
  • Worry that something bad will happen if you don’t do things a certain way, for example by maintaining symmetry or cleanliness
  • Excessive focus on religious or moral ideas

Compulsions come about as a way to try and prevent or reduce anxiety or obsessive thoughts. Most people with OCD realise that compulsions are illogical or irrational, but can’t stop acting on them.

Common compulsions include:

  • Excessive double checking of things (locks, appliances and switches)
  • Repeatedly checking in on loved ones to make sure they’re safe
  • Counting, tapping or repeating certain words
  • Spending a lot of time cleaning or hand washing
  • Accumulating junk or hoarding things
  • Thinking certain thoughts to counteract obsessive thoughts
  • Avoiding certain places

Not all compulsive behaviours will be clear to other people or involve physical actions. Some people have a form of OCD known as ‘Pure O’, in which compulsions take place mentally and the person may not even realise they have them. Find out more information on this here.

What do I do if I think I have OCD?

OCD is unlikely to get better on its own, so it’s important to seek help if you think you have it and it’s having a significant impact on your life.

You can speak to your GP, ring the NHS on 111 or refer yourself directly to a psychological therapy service. Additionally, you can use the NHS website to search for services near you and find out more about how OCD is treated.

There are also a number of things you can do yourself that may help you control your OCD:

  • As OCD can be affected by stress, it’s good to keep stress levels as low as possible. You can read our guide to managing stress.
  • Mindfulness can be helpful for those facing OCD. Try signing up for a Headspace app or Wildflower Mindfulness free trial, or download a lesson from the Free Mindfulness Project.
  • Learn what helps you to relax when you feel stressed or anxious, such as:
    • Meditating
    • Having a long bath
    • Watching a movie
    • Listening to music
    • Going for a walk
    • Reading a book
    • Yoga or pilates
  • Look after your physical health by eating a balanced diet, exercising and getting enough sleep. Read our physical health blog for more information.
  • Opening up to someone you trust can help you to feel less isolated. For tips on preparing for your first conversation, read our blog on talking about mental health. If you don’t feel ready to talk yet, spend more time with friends and family to strengthen your relationships and feel more comfortable around them.
  • Some people find self-help guides useful, such as:

You may also find it helpful to join a peer group, where you can meet other people who are facing the same challenges or chat to them online. For example:

More information

Our website also offers advice on anxiety, work and mental health (PDF) and caring for your mental wellbeing.  You can find various blogs and advice sheets on a range of topics on our financial, mental, physical and social wellbeing pages.

For more information on OCD, the following websites have lots of advice:

We’re here

If worried about your mental health, you can pick up the phone and call Ben’s confidential helpline on 08081 311 333 or use our online chat. It’s completely free to get in touch with us if you work (or have worked) in the automotive industry, or you are dependent on someone who is.

You can find out what happens when you call us here.

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