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

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 14, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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 go completely unnoticed by the person who has the disorder. 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.

Do you believe you may have OCD? Are you looking to confirm your beliefs? Below is a comprehensive guide on the disorder that will help you better understand what OCD is and what you can do to treat it.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

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 must engage in certain behaviors in an effort to ward off these intrusive obsessions. 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 in order 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. This may stem from obsessive thoughts and images of death or violence that the person with OCD is currently experiencing.
    • 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 and may lead to many compulsive actions to maintain this perceived perfection. 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 deleted or trashed.
  • Unwanted Sexual Thoughts and Feelings: Like it is with thoughts of violence, thoughts of certain sexual behaviors that disturb you is often an indication of having OCD, not being a certain type of person. With this in mind, some common unwanted sexual thoughts may include thoughts of homosexuality, 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 not experience all of the obsessions listed above, but they will experience some of them. One of the most common questions for those who believe they may have the disorder is, what happens if I experience any of the obsessions listed above? 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 process these thoughts and lead their lives without being impacted. For those with OCD, these obsessions can impact their day-to-day lives in a serious way.

In order to combat these obsessions, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder will engage in compulsive behaviors. Compulsive behaviors are repetitive behaviors that individuals with OCD would prefer not to engage in. However, they 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 in order to get the order “right”.Checking Behaviors: Individuals who are worried about losing or forgetting something will often engage in behaviors that include repeatedly checking 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: Taking repetitive action or engaging in repetitive movements is one sign of OCD. 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. These symptoms may be less prominent than your physical symptoms, so you may have to cultivate more awareness around your thinking habits before you notice these symptoms.

Both obsessions and compulsions must be present within an individual for OCD to be present (and to such a degree that it is impacting their ability to lead their day-to-day lives). If you believe that you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may have noticed some of these behaviors within yourself. This will help you work towards treating the disorder.

What Causes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

While OCD is relatively understood, there are still no clear causes behind the disorder. Some of the potential causes for the obsessive-compulsive disorder include genetics, environmental causes (which may lead to certain behaviors as a coping mechanism), and, potentially, some health issues. 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 dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder and have seen both obsessions and compulsions in your own behavior, the next step is reaching out for help. As it is with most mental health disorders, treatment may consist of a mix of therapy and medications (if needed). An effective way to get started is to look for counseling resources in your area that will help you receive the help that you need. That said, some people may not have access to the resources that they need or may not be comfortable going to a physical location. This is when online counseling platforms offer solutions.

For example, BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that helps people connect with a certified counselor online. Whether your OCD is mild or severe, you can easily speak with a therapist from the comfort of your own home. For some, this may be a better alternative than going with the traditional counseling route.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be debilitating if you do not seek out treatment. For many, however, it may not be completely clear that they are expressing symptoms of OCD. A common question amongst those who exhibit OCD symptoms is, what does OCD look like? If you believe that you have OCD but need further clarification before seeking help, look at the information provided above to learn more about the symptoms of OCD and what you can do to get help. Once you have the proper support, your symptoms will be far easier to manage.

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