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Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

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OCD is an anxiety disorder. People living with OCD are troubled by recurring unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses, as well as obsessions and repetitive rituals. People with OCD are usually aware that their symptoms are irrational and excessive, but they find the obsessions uncontrollable and the compulsions impossible to resist.

OCD is an easily misunderstood condition, and can be highly distressing for both the person affected and their family and friends.

OCD facts

  • There is no ‘typical’ OCD behaviour. The symptoms and features of OCD can vary greatly.
  • Around 2% of people in Australia have OCD.
  • Obsessive or compulsive thoughts and behaviours often appear in childhood or adolescence. More people are diagnosed by their late teens.
  • People living with OCD have a higher risk of having another mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia.
  • The causes of OCD are not fully understood, but are likely to be a combination of biological and lifestyle factors.

OCD myths

  • Myth: 'I like to be clean and tidy. I must have OCD’
  • Reality: Obsessions and compulsions are more than just a need for cleanliness. They can be exhausting, take up a lot of time, and can significantly reduce a person's quality of life.
  • Myth: ‘People with OCD cannot get better.’
  • Reality: With good treatment and support, people with OCD can recover well.
  • Myth: ‘People with OCD just need to get over it.’
  • Reality: Obsessive and compulsive behaviours are not just a character trait. A person with OCD cannot control their repetitive thoughts and behaviour.

Related: Tim Hellier on living with OCDWhat I wish people knew about OCD - Busting the myths about OCD

Symptoms

People with OCD typically experience some, but not necessarily all, of these symptoms. A mental health professional will be able to give you a proper diagnosis. Compulsions and obsessions can take up hours of a person’s day and can interfere with relationships. They can also impact on education and employment.

Obsessions

The nature and severity of obsessions can change over time. They are often exaggerated versions of concerns and worries that many people have at some time. Common obsessions include:

  • Fear of contamination from germs, dirt, toxins and other substances
  • Fears of harm to self or others
  • Intrusive sexual or violent thoughts
  • Concerns with symmetry, order and routine
  • Concerns about illness or religious issues
  • An intense, irrational fear of everyday objects and situations (phobia).

Compulsions

Compulsions can involve both actions and thoughts. They often include repetitive actions, performed to prevent an obsessive threat from happening or to reduce anxiety. Common compulsions include:

  • Excessive handwashing or cleaning the body
  • Repeated counting and ordering of objects
  • Excessive checking of locks, electrical appliances, and other things associated with safety
  • Touching, tapping, counting or moving in a certain way or a certain number of times
  • Mentally repeating words or numbers a certain number of times.

Some people with OCD also have a tic disorder. Tics are sudden, brief movements or actions such as blinking, facial grimacing, jerking body parts or throat clearing.

‘I felt I had to keep my family safe,’ says Julie, ‘but I didn't know why. If I made a mistake at school I had to rip the pages out and start again, or I felt something terrible would happen to someone I loved.’

Related: What is trichotillomania? - Five tips to help someone who hoards –The anxiety continuum

Help for people with OCD

Treatments for OCD can help people manage their obsessions and compulsions, and reduce or eliminate their symptoms.

Psychological therapy

A doctor, psychologist or other health professional talks with the person about their symptoms, and discusses alternative ways of thinking about and coping with them. This may involve anxiety management techniques such as mindfulness and breathing training.

Medication

Certain medications assist the brain to restore its usual chemical balance and help control the obsessions and compulsions. When symptoms are particularly resistant to psychological therapy, medication may be prescribed.

Community support programs

Support groups provide an environment where people with OCD and their families can meet to give and receive support. Information is provided, along with self-help and coping strategies. Understanding and acceptance by the community is also very important.

Related: Support for young people and children - Busting the myths on anxiety

SANE factsheets provide brief, introductory information about mental health.

Content last reviewed: 3 August, 2017

Busting the myths about OCD

Media representations of obsessive compulsive disorder are pretty misleading. Let's bust the myths with the facts about OCD.

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