Signs and Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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  • Unseen person arranging pencils neatly

    Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions), which are intended to relieve the anxiety generated by the intrusive thoughts. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 2% of Americans have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    OCD symptoms can range from mild to debilitating for people with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Symptoms vary from person to person; two people may both have OCD but experience vastly different symptoms.

    Here are eight signs and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder:

  • 1
    Counting to a certain number over and over
    Man sitting on couch counting with fingers

    Some people with OCD feel a magical or significant connection to certain numbers. An individual, for instance, who is fixated on the number 5 may need to eat 5, 10 or 15 crackers—counting to 5 each time—rather than stopping after 7 or 12 crackers.

    Other people with number-related OCD symptoms may feel compelled to look away from the clock when a particular time appears. Still others will scroll past TV and radio channels that contain “bad” numbers.

  • 2
    Fear of losing control and causing harm
    Night driving in Rain Storm

    Many intrusive thoughts are unpleasant. A person with OCD, for instance, may experience unwanted violent thoughts about harming themselves or others. They might envision themselves pushing a friend out into traffic or smothering their spouse with a pillow. These thoughts do not reflect their actual desires or intentions.

    To eliminate the possibility of harming someone, some people with OCD compulsively avoid knives or other weapons. They may also avoid being around other people.

  • 3
    Repetitive handwashing
    Kitchen faucet

    Fear of germs or contamination is a common obsession. Regular handwashing is healthy, but some individuals with OCD feel compelled to frequently and harshly scrub dirt and germs (both real and imagined) from their skin. These people may spend hours each day washing; some scrub their skin raw. A person with OCD who engages in repetitive handwashing rarely feels clean, even if their hands and body appear unsoiled and spotless to outside observers.

    Compulsive cleaning and disinfecting can be another symptom of OCD.

  • 4
    Difficulty discarding possessions
    Pile of Vintage Objects

    A tendency to save things like junk mail, newspapers, empty containers and clothes can be a sign of OCD. It might also be a distinct mental health condition. Hoarding was classified as an independent mental health disorder in 2013. However, some people hoard possessions to address specific thoughts and fears; these people some experts say, should be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    According to the International OCD Foundation, as many as 1 in 4 people with OCD are compulsive hoarders.

  • 5
    Repeatedly checking things

    Many people with OCD are terrified of losing or misplacing something; others are afraid that they’ll inadvertently forget to do something—to disastrous consequence. That’s why some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder go back in the house multiple times to double- (and triple-) check that the stove is off before leaving for work. Or why some OCD sufferers must carefully close, lock and then check and recheck every door before turning in for the night.

  • 6
    Need to arrange things in a particular manner
    Spiral note pad surrounded by school supplies on table

    The need to have things “just so” can be a symptom of OCD. If you can’t begin work until every object on your desk is in its assigned place or need to arrange pencils, books or other objects in your home according to size, shape or color, you may be exhibiting a symptom of OCD. Excessive arranging and organizing are compulsions that some people can’t resist because they think that if they don’t order their environment properly, something bad might happen.

  • 7
    Repetitive rituals

    Some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder engage in repetitive rituals. A person might always walk in a particular manner or follow a precise series of steps while getting dressed or undressed, for instance. Some individuals must repeat a behavior a certain number of times before they can comfortably move on to something else. Needing to chew each bite of food 8 times before swallowing could be a symptom of OCD. Being unable to sleep without completing an elaborate bedtime routine could also be a sign of OCD.

  • 8
    Compulsive praying
    Praying hands over a Bible

    Spending hours each day pouring over religious texts or engaging in prayer can be a symptom of OCD. Of course, many people find great comfort and purpose in faith and religion. Prayer and religious observances may cross over into OCD territory when the person engaging in those behaviors is driven by constant fear of sin or moral “pollution.” The individual may feel compelled to atone for perceived sins or transgressions, despite living an upstanding life. Religious OCD is also called scrupulosity.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jun 12
  1. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  2. What is OCD? OCD Foundation
  3. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  5. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). National Institute of Mental Health.
  6. What are Signs of OCD in Children and Teens? National Children’s.
  7. Understanding Healing and Touching Movement Rituals. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
  8. What is Religious OCD? The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders.
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