How to Identify Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

How to Identify Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

There are many preconceived ideas in our society of what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is and looks like. The media paints OCD as some kind of hand washing, counting, object placement disorder that gets in the way of normal life. While some of these actions are ways people who have OCD manage their anxiety, OCD is so much more than someone washing his/her hands 12 times a day.

For the most part OCD is invisible to the outside world. Unless a person manages their anxiety through actions or behaviors, most people will not know someone suffers or lives with OCD, unless they’re told, because most of the time it plays out in the mind.

OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions take the form of unwanted (and sometimes disturbing) thoughts, images, or impulses popping into the mind at any and all times. The compulsions are those rituals (praying, counting, etc.) or behaviors (washing hands, checking, etc.) used to reduce anxiety caused by the obsessions.

OCD Handwashing

Compulsively washing ones hands can be a form of OCD.

In the mind of a person who has OCD they are never able to let a thought go. Someone who has a fear of germs can look at an object and think of all the people who have touched it, then think of all the germs that have been deposited on it, and then think of all the diseases they could get from those germs, dwelling on the entire issue for seconds, minutes, or even hours. In someone that does not have OCD, they might think of all of those thoughts, but his/her brain is able to let the thought go after a second or two, and s/he can go on with their day. The OCD brain does not let the thoughts go, and in turn anxiety builds up. Unless the person is able to control the anxiety, more thoughts build up and result in more anxiety to the point the person will use a ritual or compulsion (washing his/her hands) to release the pent up anxiety.

Obsessions in OCD can come in many different forms, from fear of contamination and fear of accidentally harming someone or oneself to thoughts of doubt or a need for perfection/symmetry/exactness. Other obsessions can be characterized as repugnant, or disgusting, which include thoughts of doing something horrible to loved ones, sexual obsessions, or violating one’s religious beliefs.

Compulsions are those actions that reduce anxiety in someone with OCD, and they are performed to prevent something ‘bad’ from happening. Compulsions range from hand washing, checking (doors, locks, checking under cars, safety, etc.), ordering or arranging items, hoarding, needing to ask or confess to someone about thoughts, or perform a mental ritual, which is a compulsion performed in the mind.

A lot of us think we have OCD tendencies, and legitimately a lot of us have quirks that dictate what we do and do not like. But people who have OCD live their lives performing compulsions and rituals to get them through each day. People who have OCD experience these characteristics:

  1. Obsessions occur frequently, and they are intrusive and out of control
  2. Obsessions are time consuming, with up to an hour or more spent thinking about obsessions
  3. Obsessions cause anxiety, distress, and interfere with life
  4. Obsessions most often lead to compulsions or rituals in hopes of fixing or undoing an obsession
  5. Compulsions are directly related to the obsession, and they are repetitive, sometimes done excessively and in specific ways
  6. Compulsions and rituals are time consuming, and up to an hour or more per day can be spent performing compulsions or rituals
  7. Compulsions are deliberate and carried out to relieve anxiety brought on by obsessions
  8. Compulsions will cause anxiety in the long run, and sometimes people feel they become slaves to their compulsions or rituals

It’s said one to two percent of the population has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD is a debilitating mental disorder resulting in avoidance and distraction, and it can make everyday life a living hell. The next time you causally joke you have OCD because you didn’t like the way a pencil was placed on a table, or a picture frame was crooked, consider what you’re joking about. A mental disorder can ruin someone’s life, or make it very difficult, and as a society we should spend the time to understand what our family members, friends, and people we know experience when they live life with a mental disorder.


Do you know someone that has OCD? Have you ever joked about a mental illness? Do you think people should be treated differently if they have a mental disorder?

Additional Image: Spiro Bolos / Flickr



Brittany Valli
Brittany Valli
Crafting stories from a young age, Brittany was destined to be a writer (well, she thinks so). When she's not working on various novels, short stories or screenplays, she can be found exploring Oregon's many landscapes with her husband, tasting some of the best wine, beer and food Oregon has to offer, relaxin' in a hammock, walking her dogs, or laughing at jokes only she thinks are funny. You can find more about Brittany here: (it's a work in progress)