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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a serious anxiety-related condition where a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome obsessional thoughts, commonly referred to as obsessions (OCD-UK, no date).

OCD can affect people of all ages and genders. Around 1.2% of the population of the UK suffer from OCD, which is almost 800,000 people. Some people’s symptoms may start around puberty, but the onset of OCD usually begins around early adulthood (NHS, 2019).

OCD can have a significant impact on the lives of people suffering from it, but treatment can help keep it under control.

Obsessions and compulsions

Obsessions can be very distressing and can cause someone to carry out repetitive behaviours or “rituals” in order to keep their worries at ease or prevent perceived harm.

For example, someone who has an obsessive fear of being burgled may feel the need to check all windows and doors are locked several times before they feel like it is safe enough to leave their house.

These behaviours, also known as compulsions typically include:

  • avoidance of people, places or objects
  • constant reassurance seeking
  • internal mental counting
  • checking of body parts
  • blinking

Some people may experience OCD during pregnancy or after giving birth. Obsessions may include worrying about harming the baby or not sterilising feeding bottles properly. Compulsions could be behaviours such as repeatedly checking whether the baby is breathing. (NHS, 2019).

Compulsions usually bring relief, albeit temporarily. Therefore, these compulsions can happen repetitively, as they recur each time a person’s obsessive thought/fear is triggered. In some cases, the compulsions become more of a habit where the original fear and worries have gone. When this is the case, compulsions are often completed to enable the individual to feel “just right”.

Not just being overly organised

OCD is a real health condition that goes far beyond the common perception that OCD is simply being overly organised and needing to keep your working space tidy all the time. Other common perceptions include the idea that OCD is just a little hand washing more than usual, checking light switches or just a characteristic of someone who is overly fastidious.

In reality, OCD affects the daily lives of people suffering from it, sometimes in a severely distressing way, leading to some level of impairment or even disablement for hours at a time, each and every day. In fact, the condition can be so severe that the World Health Organisation ranked OCD in the global top 10 leading causes of disability in terms of loss of income and quality of life, in 1990.

Causes of OCD

  • Family history
    You are more likely to develop OCD if a family member has it, which could be genetic

  • Differences in the brain
    Some people who suffer from OCD have areas of unusually high activity in their brain or low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter.

  • Life events
    OCD may be more common in people who have been victims of bullying, abuse or neglect. Additionally, the condition sometimes starts after an important life event, such as childbirth or a bereavement.

  • Personality
    People who are generally quite anxious or have a strong sense of responsibility for themselves and others may be more likely to develop OCD. People who are neat, meticulous and methodical with high personal standards may also be more likely to develop OCD.

Getting help

It is important to remember that there is nothing to be ashamed about when talking about your condition. Having OCD doesn’t mean you’re “mad” and it isn’t your fault that you have the condition.

You can get help by seeing a GP. They’ll likely ask you questions about your symptoms and can refer you for therapy if necessary.


The main two types of treatment for OCD are psychotherapy and medicine.

Psychotherapeutic treatment for OCD usually involves cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This helps you face your fears and obsessive thoughts without feeling the need to address them through compulsive behaviour. This usually has an effect quite quickly.

Treatment using medicine usually involves Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant which can help by altering the chemical balance within your brain. It can take several months before you notice the effect of SSRIs. However, most people will benefit in the end.


OCD-UK, no date. Introduction to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. [online] Available at:

NHS, 2019. Overview - Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). [online] Available at: