What Does OCD Look Like: How To Spot OCD Symptoms And Treat Them

Updated February 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While OCD (or obsessive-compulsive disorder) is commonly referenced in today’s world, few people know what the true condition looks like. A rather common mental health disorder, OCD can come with a wide variety of symptoms that may be misunderstood even by the person experiencing them. This can leave many asking themselves, what does OCD look like? The good news is that once identified, this disorder is quite treatable and manageable.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Experiencing Symptoms Of OCD Isn’t Something To Ignore

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder characterized by unwanted, intrusive thoughts and repetitive physical or mental actions that stem from those thoughts. Whatever may be the source of the obsessions, individuals engage in certain behaviors in an effort to ward off intrusive and distressing fears. 

Of course, not everyone who has intrusive thoughts or actions has OCD. This is an extremely simplified definition of what OCD truly is, but we will walk through the full scope of this disorder as we navigate this article.

What Does OCD Look Like? OCD Symptoms

This disorder is separated into two distinct sets of symptoms that are experienced alongside each other: obsessions and compulsions. The first part of this condition features obsessions, which then lead to compulsions.


Obsessions refer to unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses that cause distress to the individual experiencing them. Most often, those who have OCD are aware that these thoughts are disturbing and unwanted. However, they may be able to do very little to stop them. When they do attempt to get rid of these thoughts, it will often result in the compulsion (which we will cover further in this article). Put simply, you must be experiencing both obsessions and compulsions to have OCD.

Obsessions will often fall into one of the following categories:

  • Contamination: 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.

  • A Lack or Loss of Control: Some individuals with OCD may experience anxiety when it comes to losing self-control. Whether this means stealing, swearing, hurting others, or hurting themselves, they may feel like they are always at risk of causing damage to others around them. 

  • Fear of Being Harmed or Harming Others: This category of obsessions differs from the previous section in one way: it is often not in their control that certain things can happen. For example, those who have this fear will often be afraid that certain things will happen to them (such as fires or burglaries) or might be anxious about accidentally hurting someone through a certain action (such as dropping something on their foot). This fear can lead them to take irrational action in order to prevent these things from happening.

  • The Need to Be Perfect: Perfection is a common obsession within obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some concerns within this category include needing a number of things to be even or exact, anxiety associated with losing things or forgetting things, indecisiveness in regard to keeping or getting rid of certain items, and a fear of forgetting information once it has been trashed.

  • Unwanted Sexual Thoughts and Feelings: Like thoughts of violence, thoughts of certain sexual behaviors that disturb you may be an indication of having OCD. Some common unwanted sexual thoughts may include obsessing over one’s sexual orientation, aggressive sexual scenarios, or sexual thoughts or impulses towards other people (or simply sexual thoughts on their own).

  • Religious or Superstitious Obsessions: Religious and superstitious obsessions may feature anxiety or concern surrounding being offensive to God, making sure to constantly make morally right choices, or observing superstitions exactly to avoid bad luck or other potential issues.

Those with OCD will likely not experience all the obsessions listed above, but they may experience some of them. The major difference between those who have OCD and those who don’t is that obsessions can be anxiety-inducing and debilitating. People without OCD can typically process these thoughts and lead their lives without being impacted. For those with OCD, obsessions can impact day-to-day life in a serious way.


In order to combat these obsessions, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder will often engage in compulsive behaviors. Compulsive behaviors are repetitive behaviors that individuals with OCD may feel that they have to in order to deal with obsessive thoughts and feelings. 

Some of the most common compulsions experienced in this disorder include:

  • Cleaning Behaviors: If someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder is greatly impacted by obsessions with dirt or germs, they may engage in repetitive behaviors like washing their hands excessively, grooming multiple times a day, or cleaning their environment regularly to ensure that they do not come into contact with any contaminants. This may also include arranging objects several times to get the order “right.”

  • Checking Behaviors: Individuals who are worried about losing or forgetting something may repeatedly check for something. This may include repeatedly checking to make sure that they haven’t hurt themselves or others, checking to see if certain objects are still where they left them, checking on information, or making sure that nothing terrible has happened to something or someone.

  • Repetitive Movements or Actions: This may include repeating certain routines throughout the day (that are not necessarily beneficial, like bedtime routines), repeating movements like tapping, asking someone something multiple times, or doing things in multiples, often in even numbers.

  • Mental Behaviors: Mental compulsions may include counting while performing an activity, undoing “bad” actions by doing something good afterward, praying excessively, or regularly reviewing events in your head. 

What Causes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

While OCD isn’t a particularly uncommon or unheard of disorder, there are still no clear causes that researchers can point to as culprits behind its development. In most cases, OCD seems to form because of multiple factors.

Some of the potential causes for the obsessive-compulsive disorder include:

  • Genetics

  • Environmental causes (which may lead to certain behaviors as a coping mechanism)

  • Other mental health disorders

Once you are more aware of your OCD symptoms, that is when you can begin working towards treatment and recovery. But how can you get started?

OCD: How to Treat It

If you are living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and find it challenging to manage your symptoms, the next step to take may be reaching out for help. As is true for  most mental health disorders, treatment for OCD may consist of a mix of therapy and medications (if needed).

Experiencing Symptoms Of OCD Isn’t Something To Ignore

An effective way to get started is to look for counseling resources that can help you receive the help that you may need. That said, some people may not have the resources that they need or may not be comfortable going to a physical location. This is when online counseling can be especially beneficial. 

Whether your OCD is mild or severe, online treatment means that you can easily speak with a therapist from the comfort of your own home. For some, this may be a more manageable and approachable alternative than going with the traditional counseling route.

No matter what your OCD looks like, it’s likely that therapy can help you learn to identify your symptoms and work to overcome challenges that may come with them. Studies support online therapy’s ability to help treat mental health symptoms of all sorts. One recent review of over a dozen studies analyzing the benefits of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) found it to be an effective treatment method for decreasing symptoms of various mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and more. 


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that typically involves obsessions, or intense fears about specific things, and compulsions meant to help a person combat intrusive thoughts and worries. Because OCD can impact mental and physical health in the long-term, it can be important to seek out appropriate care when needed. A mental health professional can offer you the support you may need to learn to live with your symptoms and feel in control of your behavior, even on tough days. 

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