OCD Obsessive Compulsive Disorder symptoms explained

7 November 2013


 Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) affects about one person in every 50 at some point in their lives. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, there are about one million people living with OCD in the UK.

OCD can have such an effect on the lives of those affected that the World Health Organization (WHO) has ranked it among the five top mental disorders causing the highest disability ratings in the world.

“About one to two per cent of the population is diagnosed with OCD,” explains Beth Murphy, Head of Information at the charity Mind. “For these people the problem of obsessions and compulsions are so severe that they have stopped being able to live their lives the way they want to.” 

What is OCD? 

OCD is classed as an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety is one of the emotions you feel, along with fear and guilt, when you have OCD. Experts believe that stressful events can contribute to the development of OCD in about one third of cases.

However, while stress can mean you find it hard to concentrate, and feel irritable, dizzy and under pressure, it doesn’t involve the typical symptoms.

OCD is made up of two main parts 


“These are unwelcome thoughts that repeatedly come into your head,” says Beth Murphy. “They can be triggered by external factors, but often come seemingly from nowhere, which can be very distressing.”

Some common forms of obsessive thoughts include:

  • Seeing yourself doing harm – for instance, thinking that you are going to push someone under a train
  • Fearing that you’ve failed to prevent harm – perhaps worrying that you’ve left the cooker on and so might cause a fire
  • Fearing contamination from dirt and germs
  • Worrying excessively about order or symmetry – spending hours each day putting objects in exactly the right place
  • If you have OCD you are more likely to feel that you will carry out these acts, and then feel that you must stop yourself.


Other symptoms of OCD can include repeated acts, such as washing your hands, or touching a particular doorknob repeatedly. Or you may find that you keep repeating a word or phrase in your head, to keep someone you love safe. All of these behaviours can greatly affect the life of the person with OCD, and those near to them.

What triggers OCD? 

We don’t always know exactly what causes OCD. It can sometimes run in families, and may appear at a time when your life has changed dramatically – starting a new job, for instance, or having a baby.

People who are very neat and methodical, with high standards, may be more prone to develop OCD, but aren’t always affected by it.

While the situations mentioned above may contribute to the initial development of OCD, the episodes that come afterwards may follow a period of being stressed or depressed. On the other hand, they may not have an obvious trigger.

OCD doesn’t have a set course. It can become slowly worse, but there may be times when it seems to have disappeared.

Living with OCD  

Having OCD can be very isolating, but talking to someone you trust can make an enormous difference. Just knowing that someone else understands can be a great help.

There are some self-help steps that you can take. “Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can help the anxiety caused by OCD,” says Beth Murphy. “And exercise, regardless of whether it is a short walk in the park or a cycle to work, releases feel-good hormones and can distract you from unwanted thoughts.”

You can also look for local or online peer-support groups, where you’ll be able to find support from people going through similar experiences to your own. You’ll find Mind’s online support group ‘elefriends’ at elefriends.org.uk

Who can help? 

Often people who have mild OCD improve without having any treatment. However, those with moderate to severe OCD may need some help to tackle their condition.
“If you are concerned that you might have OCD, you should speak to your GP as early as possible,” says Beth Murphy. “They will be able to outline the various treatment options available to you, such as talking therapies and medication.”

 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that is often used to treat OCD. It focuses on how you think about the things happening in your life. These include your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. It looks at how you can change negative thoughts and behaviour, and so change the way you feel.




Royal College of Psychiatrists

World Health Organization