What Does OCD Look Like? How To Spot OCD Symptoms And Find Help

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated November 7, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is commonly referenced, some people may not know what the condition looks like. OCD is a common mental illness involving obsessions and compulsions surrounding unique themes. Each person with OCD is different, so reducing stigmas by expanding your knowledge of this condition can be essential.

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What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness characterized by unwanted, intrusive thoughts and repetitive physical or mental behaviors that may stem from these thoughts. No matter the source of the obsessions, individuals engage in certain behaviors to ward off intrusive and distressing fears. 

Not everyone who has intrusive thoughts or actions has OCD. In addition, some people with OCD may only experience obsessions without physical compulsions. Mental compulsions may involve inner rituals that are difficult to notice. To understand OCD, knowing the difference between obsessive and compulsive symptoms can be helpful. 

What Are Obsessions In OCD? 

Obsessions refer to unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses that cause distress to the individual experiencing them. Often, those with OCD are aware that these thoughts are disturbing and unwanted. However, they may struggle to stop them from occurring. 

Note that intrusive thoughts often involve highly distressing or extreme subject matter. They are not “random” or “quirky” thoughts and are instead severe and challenging for the individual to cope with. These thoughts often involve illegal subjects or those against the individual’s morals and beliefs, causing them to fear their own minds. They may start to believe they are corrupt or a “bad person” due to these thoughts. 

When someone with OCD attempts to rid themselves of thoughts or fears, it may result in a compulsion. Obsessions may fall into one of the following categories. 


One of the most common associations with OCD is the preoccupation with germs or bacteria. However, contamination concerns may vary between those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Concerns may include bodily fluids like urine, diseases, dirt, or chemicals such as household cleaners or chemicals within the environment. Some people may have self-imposed beliefs about what is clean or not. For example, someone with OCD might believe plastic chairs in specific scenarios are dirty or could harm them, even if these fears don’t make sense to another person. 

A Lack Or Loss Of Control

Some individuals with OCD may experience anxiety about the idea of losing self-control. For example, someone might worry that they might accidentally commit a crime, hurt others, or partake in dangerous activities. Often, these fears accompany a knowingness that these activities go against the individual’s values and morals. They may know they don’t want to act in these ways but worry that they will do so without knowing or have done so without knowing.  

Fear Of Experiencing Or Committing Harm 

Those with harm OCD may believe forms of harm will come to them or that they might hurt someone else accidentally. This fear can lead them to take action to prevent harm through compulsions like avoidance. 

A Desire For Perfection 

Perfection can be a common obsession for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. For example, people might experience the following: 

  • A desire for perfection 
  • Fear of forgetfulness 
  • Indecisiveness in letting go 
  • Fear of forgetting information 
  • Fear of making mistakes 

Unwanted Sexual Thoughts And Feelings

Like thoughts of violence, thoughts of certain sexual behaviors that disturb you may indicate OCD. Unwanted sexual thoughts may include obsessions about one’s sexual orientation, aggressive sexual scenarios, or sexual impulses toward others. Some people may have sexual thoughts about disturbing or illegal imagery that they feel they cannot get rid of, which causes extreme distress. 

Religious Or Superstitious Obsessions

Religious and superstitious obsessions may feature anxiety or concern surrounding offensiveness to one’s religion, a desire to make moral choices, or a fear of not observing superstitions to avoid bad luck or other consequences. 

What Is The Difference Between OCD And Anxiety Disorders?  

One difference between those who have OCD and those who don’t is that obsessions often take up most of the day and are followed by compulsive behaviors. People without OCD may process these thoughts without pairing them with behaviors like compulsions. In addition, OCD differs from anxiety disorders because the fears are often based on one’s moral code, values, and beliefs.


What Are OCD Compulsions? 

To combat obsessions and fears, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder often engage in compulsive behaviors. Compulsive behaviors are repetitive behaviors that individuals with OCD may feel they must complete to manage obsessive thoughts. Some of the most common compulsions of this condition include the following. 

Cleaning Behaviors

If someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder is impacted by contamination OCD, they may engage in repetitive behaviors like washing their hands excessively, grooming multiple times a day, or cleaning their environment regularly to ensure they do not encounter contaminants. This compulsion category may also include arranging objects several times to get the order “right.”

Checking Behaviors

Individuals worried about losing control of their environment may partake in checking behaviors. Checking behaviors can involve repeatedly checking to ensure one hasn’t hurt themselves or others, checking to see if objects are still where they left them, checking information, or ensuring everyone in their life is safe. Checking can also involve looking at messages or social media to see if you made a post or sent a message without your own knowledge. 

Repetitive Movements Or Actions

Repetitive compulsions can involve repeating movements like tapping, asking for reassurance, or counting the number of times one completes an activity. For example, someone might count their steps while they walk. 

Mental Behaviors

Mental compulsions may include counting while performing an activity, undoing actions or thoughts by replacing them with positive associations repetitively, praying excessively, or regularly reviewing events. It can also involve mental rituals, such as repeating a phrase in your mind before you go to sleep or attempting to block others from “reading your mind” by thinking of specific words or scenarios to block your “real thoughts.” 

What Causes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

While OCD isn’t an uncommon disorder, there are no clear causes that researchers can point to as culprits in its development. Often, OCD can be attributed to a combination of factors. The potential causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder may include:

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Other mental illnesses
  • A parent with OCD, most commonly passed on by one’s mother
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How To Find Professional Treatment 

If you are living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and find it challenging to manage your symptoms, support is available. For many, the treatment of OCD consists of a combination of therapy and medication. However, counseling is often considered the most effective form of support. 

Despite the popularity of counseling for OCD, some people may not have the resources to get support in a physical location. In these cases, specialized OCD counseling through online platforms like BetterHelp may be beneficial. Whether your OCD is mild or severe, online treatment allows you to speak with a therapist from the comfort of your home. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or chat sessions and express interest in modalities specific to OCD. 

Studies support online therapy’s ability to treat mental health conditions like OCD. One study found that online counseling was more effective and cost-effective than in-person therapy for clients living with OCD.  


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness involving obsessions and compulsions. Because OCD can impact mental and physical health in the long term, reaching out for appropriate care can be valuable. OCD is considered manageable with long-term support and therapy modalities like exposure and response prevention (ERP) or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). If you’re interested in learning more about your treatment options, consider reaching out to a provider online or in your area to get started.

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