Every Sign and Symptom Of OCD You Need To Be Aware Of
This article will guide you through the signs and symptoms of OCD which you might notice within yourself, or from an outside perspective in a loved one. We’ve also got you covered with guidance of what you can do if you do notice signs or symptoms.
Three elements of OCD
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness categorized by three elements: obsessions, the emotional response to these obsessions, and compulsions. Obsessions and compulsions can have different themes and be experienced differently depending on the individual. However, all forms of OCD have these three elements.
Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, images or urges which feel out of control. They can pop into your head at any time. We all have intrusive thoughts: they’re completely natural and this in itself doesn’t mean that you have OCD. In fact up to 80% of people without OCD have intrusive thoughts. However if you attach great significance to these thoughts and find them highly distressing, then this is when they become obsessions.
As mentioned, obsessions make you feel very uncomfortable or distressed. They cause anxiety to rise to extremely high levels. This leads the individual to feel like they need to do something to reduce these horrible feelings.
Compulsions are the actions taken to ‘deal with’ the high anxiety obsessions bring. While the compulsive behaviour may at first seem to ease the anxiety, it quickly returns, and often is more intense. This leads to the individual feeling they need to carry out more compulsions to cope.
Thought patterns of OCD
Researchers have identified thought patterns, or cognitive processes, which are present in those with OCD. You might recognize some of these thought patterns within yourself as a sign of OCD, or within a loved one if they are open about their thoughts. It’s important to note that just one of these thought patterns is unlikely to be OCD: those who experience a few of these patterns may have OCD.
You may feel an increased sense of responsibility for your own safety as well as for that of loved ones and even strangers. You may believe it’s your responsibility to keep others safe. You might feel you have the power to cause or prevent bad events.
Overestimation of threat
This simply means you’re more likely to see potential threats, even when they are unlikely. You are also likely to feel you would be unable to cope with a potential threat and worry about the results of it. Your mind automatically goes to the worst possible scenario.
For example, if you had obsessions around relationships and your partner said they wanted to have a conversation, you may automatically assume your partner is going to end the relationship. Your thoughts may then spiral, assuming that you are then going to end up depressed and unable to continue working, so you will then lose your home and be living on the streets. Conversely someone without OCD may mildly worry that their partner may be unhappy in the relationship, but consider other options (such as them wanting the relationship to progress or them potentially asking for help to make an important life decision).
You might also hear this referred to as over-importance of thoughts. This means that you think a thought is the same as carrying out the action. So if you have a negative intrusive thought about harming a loved one, you would feel just as guilty as if you actually carried out that action. You may also believe having this intrusive thought means you really want to harm your loved one.
Thought-action fusion also refers to ‘magical thinking’, which means you believe that having a thought can make an event more likely to happen. For example if you had an intrusive thought about your partner being in a car accident, you may feel this makes the event likely to occur.
Control of thoughts
It’s common to feel that you should have control over your thoughts, or that intrusive thoughts aren’t normal. You might feel you should have full control over all of your thoughts, and that if you don’t, this is unacceptable.
You may feel that you should be perfect, and that anything which is not perfect (yourself included) is not acceptable. It may make you uncomfortable to think about the imperfect.
Intolerance for uncertainty
This simply means that you may find situations involving the unknown hard to cope with. These situations may make your anxiety higher and you may struggle emotionally with anything which feels uncertain.
Signs and symptoms of obsessions
We know that obsessions must be present in someone with OCD, but how do you know you’re experiencing obsessions? Since obsessions are within your mind, you may recognise these signs in yourself, but it’s unlikely you will recognise them in someone else unless they openly talk about them. Let’s take a look at the signs and symptoms of obsessions.
General signs of obsessions
First we’ll cover more general signs of experiencing obsessions:
- Having regular intrusive thoughts which are very distressing in nature
- Feeling unable to ‘get rid of’ these thoughts
- Feeling rising anxiety when you are focused on these thoughts
- Finding that these thoughts center around a theme or follow a pattern
- Feeling that these thoughts are going to lead to something bad happening
- A sense of deep set guilt around having these thoughts
- Feeling very responsible for the safety of others
- Feeling a strong urge to try to do something to stop these thoughts
Obsessions vs ‘normal’ intrusive thoughts
We’ve mentioned that intrusive thoughts are normal, so how do you tell the difference between a ‘normal’ intrusive thought and an obsession? Well the answer is fairly simple. A normal intrusive thought isn’t something you would dwell on. You might think it’s strange or feel a bit embarrassed or worried that it popped into your head, but that would be the extent of the emotions in regards to the thought. You would then let the thought pass you by, and probably never think about it again. A normal intrusive thought wouldn’t play on your mind, last very long, or make you feel any lasting negative emotions.
On the other hand, an obsessive intrusive thought causes extreme distress which is long lasting. It is likely to play on your mind repeatedly and for long periods of time. It would feel nearly impossible to get rid of and be accompanied by feelings of guilt, disgust at oneself, very high anxiety and many other negative feelings.
The International OCD Foundation explains that obsessions, “are time consuming and get in the way of important activities the person values.” The charity OCD UK states that obsessions are, “always intrusive, unwanted, disturbing and most importantly significantly interfere with the sufferers ability to function on a day-to-day basis as they are incredibly difficult to ignore.”
Types of obsessions and their signs
There are many types of obsessions, meaning themes obsessions center around. Within each theme there can be so many varying obsessions and each one can be experienced differently by each individual. You can also experience more than one type of obsession. Don’t worry if you don’t see your type of obsession here, it doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
We’ll go through each theme of obsessions and how they are likely to manifest as signs and symptoms of OCD. It’s vital to note that these intrusive thoughts do not make you a bad person, or mean that you are at risk of carrying out your obsessions. Intrusive thoughts around harm or of a sexual nature for example, can be misconstrued as the individual being likely to act on these thoughts: this is not the case. Remember that everyone has intrusive thoughts, and they do not reflect how you really feel or who you really are as a person.
If you struggle with contamination obsessions, you will be very frightened by the thought of yourself or loved ones being contaminated. This may include fearing germs, dirt and ‘dirty areas’ (like public toilets). You might fear bodily fluids, viewing them as dirty. You may be afraid you or a loved one is going to become ill because of this perceived contamination. It’s also possible to be worried about environmental or chemical contaminants.
These fears are likely to plague you often, making you feel as though you are almost constantly on the lookout for risks of contamination. You might feel as though you are never clean enough, or that your home is never clean enough no matter how hard you try. You might feel a deep sense of fear at the thought of what will happen if you, a loved one or your home becomes contaminated.
If you struggle with obsessive thoughts around harm, you may find that you are having thoughts or images about harming yourself, or someone else. This someone else could be a loved one or a stranger. It could be a combination of all of three. You might find that these thoughts happen regularly, making you feel like a bad person or a danger to others.
Obsessions around harm can also be focused on being responsible for the safety of others. You might fear harming someone by accident, or accidentally causing a situation which could lead to harm. You may feel under great pressure to keep others safe, which can take its toll.
Order or symmetry
These obsessions focus around feeling the urge to have things in a specific order or lined up ‘just right’. You might feel you need to have things aligned symmetrically, by size, colour, or facing in a specific direction for example. These urges will feel out of your control. If something doesn’t adhere to the order you prefer, you will feel a significant sense of discomfort or distress. You might feel as though something bad is going to happen if this order isn’t maintained.
Intrusive sexual thoughts can come in a few varieties. You might have thoughts about sexual identity, for example fearing that someone will perceive you as gay or straight, when you identifiy as the opposite. You might question whether you are gay and fear that you are, even though you know within yourself that you are straight (or visa versa).
Sexual obsessions can also focus around sexual abuse and sexual thoughts about children. If you experience these thoughts it’s likely that you will feel very ashamed and guilty. You might feel you need to constantly be on the lookout for signs that these thoughts are true. Other sexual thoughts can focus on, “sexual thoughts about friends, incest, infidelity, sexual perversions, sex with animals, violent sexual behavior, and blasphemous thoughts combining religion and sex.”
If you have intrusive thoughts around relationships you might fear that your partner is not ‘the one’ or that you aren’t compatible. You might find yourself worrying that your partner is not attractive enough. Alternatively you might feel you are not good enough for your partner.
This type of intrusive thought can be really difficult to distinguish from normal thoughts and questions about your love life. However the difference is that these intrusive thoughts will be regular, very distressing, and won’t necessarily reflect how you really feel. This can happen even in a relationship that is otherwise healthy and happy.
Religious / Scrupulosity
If you have intrusive religious thoughts you will feel as though you need to stick to a strict moral code and do what’s right. You may be very hard on yourself if you slip from these strict morals. You might fear that if you do or say something wrong, you will be punished by a religious figure, or that something bad will happen to you or your loved ones.
You might feel as though nothing you do is good enough for God and be very down on yourself. These obsessions are likely to infiltrate into every aspect of your life. This can happen whether you follow a specific religion or not.
Urge to hoard
If you have an urge to hoard, you will find it very difficult to throw things away, even if they’re useless or worn out. You will have a deep fear or anxiety about getting rid of things. You may also have a strong urge to collect certain items: this isn’t like a hobby but more likely to be things which aren’t useful or sentimental, and which you otherwise wouldn’t have an interest in.
You may have a deep fear of losing control of yourself, or of a situation (even if it’s something you can’t possibly have full control over). You might fear that you will lose control and act on an impulse which you will later regret. You might be afraid that you will act on another obsession. You may worry that if you don’t keep yourself under strict control, you will say or do something you don’t mean to do and offend or upset someone.
If you struggle with perfectionism you will feel as though things have to be perfect, including yourself! This can feel like a lot of pressure, because of course being perfect isn’t a realistic goal. Anytime something is imperfect, it may feel very uncomfortable for you, make you feel as though you’ve failed, or make you worry that something terrible will happen as a result.
You may fear that you or a loved one is going to become seriously ill: this is separate from continaimation obsessions because it doesn’t stem from a fear of germs or dirt. You may also experience a hyper awareness of bodily processes which normally you would not take notice of: this could be things like blinking, swallowing or breathing. You might be able to hear and feel these processes very acutely, and might find this very distressing. It might be hard to focus on anything else because these processes are so ‘loud’.
You may feel that specific words, numbers or situations are ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’. You might fear what will happen if you come across something ‘unlucky’ and be constantly on alert for these perceived threats. You will also feel very drawn to what you perceive as ‘lucky’.
Signs and symptoms of compulsions
Compulsions can manifest as overt or psychical, meaning that they are actions you actually carry out which can be observed by other people. In this case, you would be able to see signs of compulsions in a loved one. However compulsions can also be done with your mind, known as covert or mental compulsions. These are harder to detect within yourself, and of course, within someone else.
You may know that these compulsions are not grounded in reality, but find it difficult to resist them anyway. OCD UK explains that, “Typically, the individual experiences a sense of resistance to the act but this is overridden by the strong, subjective drive to perform the action.” Alternatively, you may be unaware that the actions you’re taking are not based in logic: to you they may make complete sense.
General signs of compulsions
General signs of compulsions include:
- Feeling the strong, often uncontrollable urge to ‘deal’ with your obsessive thoughts by taking action.
- Feeling the need to carry out ‘rituals’ or repeat behaviours over and over again.
- Feeling that you must carry out these actions in order to prevent something bad happening.
- Finding that anxiety is alleviated briefly after carrying out a compulsion, but it quickly comes back stronger.
- These behaviours take up a lot of time, feeling like a vicious cycle.
- You may find it tough to focus on other tasks because of these behaviours.
- You might find that other priorities are set aside as your compulsions take over.
Types of compulsions and their signs
Just as with obsessions, there are many types of compulsions someone may struggle with. You can struggle with more than one compulsion at once. You might find that the compulsions relate to the obsessions: for example, if you have contamination obsessions your compulsion might be to repeatedly wash and clean. However compulsions can also be completely unrelated, for example if you fear someone in your family getting hurt, you might need to arrange things in a specific order to ‘prevent’ this happening.
Just like we mentioned with obsessions, these general types of compulsions can manifest in different ways for each individual, and can vary in severity. However they will all cause significant distress and disrupt the individual’s life.
This compulsion can involve checking anything repeatedly physically or visually. You might need to repeatedly check that you’ve turned plug sockets off before you leave the house. You may need to check a piece of work over and over again before you send it to your boss, to ensure it’s ‘perfect’. You may need to go through everything in your bag multiple times before you go out, to ensure you’ve got everything you need.
Checking compulsions can go on for minutes, or even hours depending on the severity. The cycle can be a tough one to break, and you may need to keep going until it ‘feels right’. In a loved one you may notice them double and triple checking things. You might notice damage to property through repeatedly checking, for example damage to taps through repeatedly checking they’re turned off, or damage to door handles through lots of checking that the door is locked.
Washing and cleaning
This might involve washing yourself repeatedly, such as washing your hands or taking lots of showers. Alternatively it could involve cleaning your home compulsively, whether it’s a specific area of the home or the whole home. You may also need to clean everything you touch. This can take hours and be exhausting.
In someone else you may notice signs such as lots of cleaning liquids being used, multiple showers being taken, or even skin irritations through too much washing. For example, hands can crack and bleed from repeated washing. You might notice they are cleaning excessively and aren’t able to stop until they’re ‘finished’ and it feels right to them.
This entails needing to repeat something until it ‘feels right’ or until you’ve done the action a specific number of times. This could be literally anything, such as needing to walk in and out of a doorway a number of times before you can finally walk through it and walk away, or needing to repeat a phrase a specific number of times. Some people may need to tap or touch a surface a specific number of times. In loved ones, repeating compulsions may be fairly obvious.
Arranging and symmetry
This type of compulsion involves arranging items in a specific order, and often becoming very distressed if this order is disrupted. This could be any item, from clothes in your wardrobe to food on your plate.
In a loved one this arranging may be obvious depending on the extent of it. What is likely to be more obvious is the emotional distress shown if something is moved and their preferred order is not maintained exactly.
This involves seeking reassurance from loved ones. You might ask a loved one to confirm you’ve carried out a task correctly; to reassure you that nothing bad is going to happen; or to double check an action they themselves have taken to ensure it fits in with your obsession. This can entail asking for reassurance over and over again. You might even need your loved one to reassure you using specific phrases or to reassure you a certain number of times.
Understandably this is one of the most noticeable compulsions in a loved one, as they will actively come to you or another loved one to seek reassurance. It can be difficult not to reassure someone you love, especially when they’re distressed. We’ll cover what to do if you notice signs of OCD in your loved one later on in this post.
You might feel the need to actively avoid certain people, places, or situations which could trigger your obsessions. For example if you have an obsession with relationships, you might avoid dating or going anywhere you could be likely to meet a partner. You might need to avoid certain numbers, phrases, letters or colours which ‘feel wrong’.
In a loved one you may notice reluctance to go to specific places. You might notice social withdrawal, or avoidance of situations they once felt comfortable in. You might also notice avoidance of certain actions or hobbies which they once enjoyed.
You might collect specific items or find it hard to throw items away; often these items have no value emotionally or financially. In someone else, you may notice them getting very upset at the thought of getting rid of items; them collecting items which seem ‘strange’ to you; or their home becoming very full of items which seem to serve no purpose.
You may need to carry out a task a specific number of times while counting out loud or in your head. You might also have ‘safe’ or ‘lucky’ numbers you favour, as well as ‘unsafe’ or ‘unlucky’ numbers you avoid. You may also need to count to a number repeatedly, even without a specific task associated with it.
In loved ones, you may notice counting out loud, or the repetition of a task a specific number of times. You may notice numbers they gravitate towards and numbers they avoid or seem fearful of.
You may experience a deep sense of guilt, or feel that you’re often doing things which are wrong: this may then drive you to confess these bad thoughts or actions to someone you love, someone in authority, or a religious figure. In a loved one, you may notice them confessing if they are coming to you with their confessions.
For some people, their compulsions are performed in their mind rather than outwardly. This can be much harder to detect for the individual, and near impossible for someone else to pick up on. If a person only has mental compulsions, you might hear this referred to as ‘pure-O’ or ‘purely obsessional’: this is simply a nickname used within the mental health community.
Mental compulsions can include:
- Mental checking: mentally going over events, memories, or thoughts.
- Mental rehearsal: mentally practicing for a future scenario.
- Mental reassurance: seeking reassurance from oneself.
- Rumination: focusing excessively on an intrusive thought.
- Thought neutralization: replacing a negative thought with a positive one.
- Prayers and mantras: going over specific phrases in your mind.
- Wishing: spending significant amounts of time wishing your obsessions would go away.
- Solving: going repeatedly over thoughts about how to ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ your OCD.
- Self-punishment: mentally telling yourself how bad of a person you are.
- ‘Giving in’: coming to terms with your obsessions being true or you being a bad person, to try to ease intrusive thoughts.
Other OCD symptoms
Other OCD symptoms can occur as a result of the obsessions, emotions and compulsions you experience as part of your disorder.
Living with OCD by nature means that you will be experiencing very high anxiety, usually on a daily basis. You may feel that you are very tense, nervous and frightened a lot of the time. Levels of anxiety can fluctuate throughout the day depending on the obsessions and compulsions you’re experiencing. In a loved one you may notice a nervous disposition.
OCD is really difficult to live with to say the least. It’s common to be really down on yourself and to find trying to navigate normal life around your disorder really emotionally taxing. This can often lead to depression and an understandably negative viewpoint. In a loved one you may notice signs of a low mood, slow reactions, fatigue and a general sense of hopelessness.
High levels of stress
When you’re constantly dealing with obsessive thoughts, carrying out compulsions and are on the lookout for threats all the time, you’re stuck in a state of high alert. Our body and mind are not designed to cope with this prolonged ‘fight or flight’ state. Stress levels can skyrocket and take their toll.
Frustration and irritability
Due to stress, anxiety and the need for things to be ‘perfect’, it’s common to get frustrated and irritable quite quickly. This can be exacerbated when something doesn’t ‘fit in’ with the expectations your OCD has set out. This may manifest in loved ones as being short, snappy, inflexible or seeming grumpy.
When you have so much on your mind and are feeling so anxious and stressed, it can feel nearly impossible to get to sleep. Insomnia is common in those with OCD. This article explains that, “Research has shown that those with OCD have higher than normal rates of insomnia, and even other sleep issues like delayed sleep phase disorder.”
If you wake up in the night and you have an intrusive thought, you might need to carry out compulsions before you are able to go back to sleep. This can wake you up further and the stress can make it even more difficult to get back to sleep.
You may notice loved ones struggling to sleep and getting up during the night. You may also notice changes in their sleeping patterns, such as going to bed much later because they’re up carrying out compulsions, and struggling to get out of bed in the morning because they haven’t slept well.
Just as having a lot on your mind can make it tough to sleep, often it can lead to those with OCD having nightmares. The nightmares may revolve around your obsessions, which can contribute to the OCD cycle. These nightmares can wake you up from your sleep, or even make you nervous to go to bed. In a loved one you might notice them waking up in distress or being nervous to go to bed at night.
With so much you have to focus on in your mind, it can be really difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. You might struggle to focus at school or work, or even when you’re trying to do something fun or relaxing such as watching TV. It’s common to lose your train of thought, to miss what someone else is saying and to find that you aren’t present in the moment.
In a loved one, you might notice they seem absent during a conversation, or that they are struggling to carry out a task they would previously have had no problem with. They may lose their train of thought when they’re talking, or ask you what happened in a film you were watching!
Negative self talk/feelings
It’s common to be really hard on yourself when you live with OCD, particularly around some obsessions such as those centering around harm and sexual themes. You might feel you are a terrible person and feel very guilty. Carrying out compulsions can make you less present as a loved one, and less able to carry out daily functions, which can make you angry and frustrated with yourself. If you have to ask for help, this can make you feel like a burden. It’s also possible you may be hard on yourself about actually having OCD, feeling that it makes you ‘weak’ or that you should be able to stop the cycle.
You might ‘think’ very negatively about yourself or speak in negative language about yourself. In a loved one you may notice them talking very harshly about themselves. While all of these feelings are valid, it’s important to remember that you are doing your best, that there is hope through treatment, and that this isn’t your fault.
Just as with the negative self talk we mentioned, OCD can reduce your confidence and self esteem. You may not feel like the person you were before you had OCD, and you may lose confidence in your own abilities. This can manifest in a loved one as a change in behaviour, which is more noticeable if the individual was particularly confident previously.
Changes in appetite
If your obsessions and compulsions center around food, this may cause you to avoid food or gravitate towards (or away from) specific foods. When your mind is so busy with obsessions and compulsions, sometimes it can be hard to prioritize eating. For some, food may become a comfort and their appetite may increase. For others, increased anxiety may lead to a reduced appetite.
Lack of self-care
Self-care refers to any positive action you take to look after your physical and mental health. This can include eating well, exercising, practicing good sleep habits, personal hygiene, making time for fun and so on. Of course when you’re so busy trying to cope with OCD you may not make self-care a priority, or you may not have time for self-care because your compulsions are so time consuming.
In a loved one, you might notice they are not taking care of themselves. For example, they may not be brushing their teeth or showering as often as they should. They might not do things which bring them joy, or they might not go out for exercise.
Just like self-care, socializing can sometimes take a backseat when you live with OCD. Often your compulsions take up so much time when you try to leave the house, that you simply avoid it. For some people, social situations may trigger their obsessions, so they avoid them. Sometimes the thought of being around happy people when you’re struggling so much can seem impossible. Other times, you may fear how you will be perceived by others who may not understand your OCD.
In a loved one, you might notice them turning down a lot of social invites. You may see them become increasingly socially withdrawn and spending a lot more time at home on their own.
Problems making decisions
When you’re afraid of the uncertain or that which you can’t control, it can be very tough to make decisions. When you feel like you are responsible for the safety of others, or responsible for preventing bad outcomes, making a choice can feel crippling. It can feel like there is so much pressure to make the right choice, that it feels as though the weight of the world is on your shoulders. This article explains that, “Since doubt is the cornerstone of OCD, sufferers often have the need to know, for certain, that all these decisions they are making are the right ones.”
In a loved one you may notice them outwardly struggling to make choices, or them avoiding situations which may involve big decisions. For some people with OCD, this issue can be so significant that they struggle to even choose what to wear or what to eat in the morning.
Problems at work or school
Issues with concentration, focus, and decision making can make it very difficult to hold down a job or thrive in a school environment. You may struggle to keep up with tasks and may find that you are falling behind. Sometimes compulsions can make you late, because you have to finish them before you can leave. At times, you may need to carry out compulsions at work or school which can interfere with your performance. In a loved one you might notice them getting into trouble at work or school, or having trouble completing tasks.
Some people with OCD will turn to self-medicating to try to cope with their symptoms. You might find that you are using alcohol or drugs to try to ease anxiety: however this is a dangerous coping mechanism as it can lead to addiction and more problems in the long term. You may notice a loved one turning to self-medicating, particularly if their substance use is out of character for them.
Loss of interest in hobbies
You may find that you are losing interest in hobbies or activities which you previously found fun or were very passionate about. OCD takes over and it can feel impossible to make the time for hobbies, or to enjoy them when you do try to engage in them. In a loved one, you may notice them no longer doing things they enjoy.
As we’ve discussed, stress and anxiety can put you in a state of high alert. You might constantly be on the lookout for threats. This can cause you to perceive threats even where there are none. You may become paranoid and find that you are always assuming the worst. In a loved one, you may notice them automatically jumping to the worst conclusion in any given situation, or becoming very defensive easily.
Sense of hopelessness
When you’re going through so much and are stuck in the vicious cycle of OCD, it can feel as though it’s never going to end. You might find that you are losing hope or not making plans for the future. You may not have any hope for things improving. In a loved one, you may notice they stop planning for their future or talking about their goals. They may seem hopeless and very low. It’s vital to remember that with the right treatment for OCD, there is hope!
Signs of OCD in a child or teenager
The signs and symptoms we’ve already discussed are likely to also be seen in a child or teenager. Obsessions and compulsions will often manifest in similar ways, even in children.
Some general signs of OCD in a child or teenager include:
- A newly developed fear
- A newly developed preoccupation with something which is unusual for them
- Repetitive behaviours, rituals and other visual compulsions
- A change in character or behaviour
- Problems sleeping
- High anxiety
- An excessive need for reassurance
- High emotions
- Reluctance to perform certain activities or go to specific places
- Loss of interest in things which once brought them joy
- Taking a long time to carry out daily activities
- Problems concentrating
- Problems at school
- Withdrawing socially
- Having trouble making choices
- Asking you to do or say things in a very specific way
- Getting very upset if things aren’t done ‘just right’.
What to do if you notice signs of OCD in yourself
If you feel you are experiencing signs of OCD within yourself, it can be really frightening. You might be struggling mentally and feel very confused about what is happening. Let’s take a look at some steps you can follow in this situation.
As hard as it sounds, try not to panic. Recognising that something is wrong and being self aware is a good thing, even if it might not feel like it! It means that you can seek help, and start to regain control over your life again.
Monitor your symptoms
Once you’ve started noticing symptoms, it’s important to monitor them. Keep note of what you’re experiencing, when, and if there are any triggers that you notice. You could also note down the severity of your symptoms and the emotions you feel around them. This can help you to see patterns in your symptoms and enable your doctor to get a better idea of what is happening.
Go to your doctor
Your next step should be to go to your doctor and reach out for help. This can feel scary and you might be reluctant to do so, especially if you are ashamed of your intrusive thoughts, but it’s really important that you do so because you need help to overcome your OCD. The National Health Service (NHS) state, “OCD is a health condition like any other, so there’s nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. Having OCD does not mean you’re “mad” and it’s not your fault you have it.”
Explain what you have been going through, take your notes with you if you feel they will help, and ensure your doctor refers you to see a mental health professional. Depending on where you live, you might be able to self-refer to a psychological therapies service. This is how you will be properly assessed and get an appropriate diagnosis (whether it’s OCD or not).
Do your own research
Once you’ve reached out for help and start to get a better idea of whether you do have OCD, you can start doing your own research. The more you learn, the better equipped you will be to tackle your OCD and engage in treatment. Use reputable resources and if you find it’s overwhelming, you could do your research in short bursts or with someone else to support you.
Once you know what you’re experiencing, you can start to seek help. You may find your mental health professional refers you for face to face therapy. They may recommend some medication to help you manage your symptoms. You could also choose to seek treatment privately, or through an online OCD treatment programme.
What to do if you notice signs of OCD in a loved one
If you think you’re seeing signs of OCD in someone you love, it can be really difficult. You may want to ask them about it or ensure they’re ok, but it can be tough to know where to start. It’s a delicate and personal subject. Let’s take a look at what you can do.
Gently bring up your concerns
If you’re worried, you should start by gently bringing up your concerns. Bear in mind they may not know they have OCD, they might not be ready to talk about it, or they might not want others to know. Don’t jump in abruptly: this might worry them or make them want to withdraw from the conversation. Instead you could ask how they’ve been doing lately, and mention you’ve noticed they seem to be acting a bit out of character. If they seem receptive to the conversation, you could mention some of the things you’ve noticed and what you are concerned about.
Be there to listen
One of the biggest ways you can help is to be there to listen. Sometimes just having someone to talk to can be invaluable. You don’t have to know what to say and you don’t have to try to ‘make it better’: just be there.
If they talk to you about their symptoms, you could offer your support. You could offer to go to the doctors with them if they haven’t yet been. If they have a diagnosis, you could ask if there’s anything you can do to help them, or any therapy appointments they’d like you to attend with them. If they’re struggling with day to day tasks, you could offer to help them out with things like shopping, cooking or housework.
Respect their boundaries
It’s absolutely vital to remember that even if you are worried, they are their own person and you must respect their boundaries. You cannot force them to seek help. You can’t make someone do what you feel is right.
If they say they don’t want your help, or that they don’t want to talk about it, you must respect that. Don’t keep asking or pushing your concerns on them. From personal experience I can tell you it’s far more likely we will open up later on when we’re ready, if you respect our boundaries from the beginning.
What to do if you notice signs of OCD in your child
If your child is displaying signs of OCD, it may feel very scary. The first thing to remember is that if your child does have OCD, or any other mental illness, there is help out there. Things can get better. Let’s take a look at the steps you can take.
Monitor their symptoms
Keeping note of the symptoms you’re noticing can be useful. You can note down how severe they are, when they occur, how often and if they appear to be in reaction to anything in particular. This can help their doctor get a clearer picture of what might be going on.
Talk to them
Gently talking to your child about what they’re experiencing can be useful for them and you. Bear in mind that they might not understand what’s going on, and they might not be aware that their behaviours aren’t ‘normal’. Asking open questions to encourage them to talk about behaviours you’ve noticed can help you to get an idea of how much they are aware of and how they feel. It can also give them a chance to talk about any difficult feelings they may be having.
Go to their doctor
The next step is to take your child to their doctor. Express your concerns and what you’ve noticed. Take the notes you’ve made about their symptoms. Write down any questions you want to cover before the appointment to ensure you get the answers you need. It’s important they refer your child to see a mental professional for a thorough assessment and diagnosis. You might need to advocate for this by being firm, consistent and calm.
Do your research
Once you have a better idea of what your child is going through, doing your own research can be a great way to build knowledge to help your child. Watch videos, read articles and blogs, check out personal stories: essentially anything that helps you to better understand what your child is experiencing and learn how to help them. Ensure you use reputable resources and take breaks if you find research stressful or upsetting.
Once your child has diagnosis it’s time to seek treatment. There are lots of options which can be effective. Your child’s mental health professional will likely refer you to appropriate treatment. You could also seek treatment privately. Some treatments may involve you, so that you can learn how to help your child break the cycle of OCD.
Living with someone with OCD is difficult: it can be frustrating and it can be hard to distinguish between what they have control over and what they don’t. The key is to be patient. Understand that these behaviours are not your child’s fault: they are the OCD’s fault. Over time and with treatment, things can improve.
Let them know you’re there to listen
One of the most pivotal things you can do for your child is let them know that you are there to listen. It can be difficult for an adult to express deep feelings, but for a child it can feel so frightening and confusing. They might not yet have the words to voice their feelings. Letting them know you are always there to just listen to them is so helpful.
Whether it’s yourself or a loved one who is showing signs of OCD, remember that there are steps you can take to get help and find the way forward. There are treatments which can help you. You can get your life back!
OCD UK, (2020), “What are obsessions?”
International OCD Foundation, (2020), “What is OCD?”
Owen Kelly, PhD, (2020), “Connection Between Sexual Obsessions and OCD”. Very Well Mind.
OCD UK, (2020), “What are compulsions?”
Joe Antonellis, (2017), “Before Bed: An Unwanted Date with OCD”. NOCD.
Janet Singer, (2015), “OCD and Decision Making”. Mentalhelp.net
NHS, (2019), “Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)”.