Life With OCD: Cleaning & Other Behaviors

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 06/24/2022

Person Washing Hands

OCD is a term that many people have heard of. It’s referred to in the media and portrayed in characters in Hollywood films and shows. It’s commonly shown as people washing their hands frequently or doing other kinds of behavior repeatedly. While that can be one way that OCD looks, there are many other ways it manifests in someone’s life. From OCD cleaning to intrusive thoughts, it’s important to know that OCD should be taken seriously and treated.

Is OCD A Mental Disorder? Understanding OCD

The official name of OCD Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It’s named that because people that have OCD have obsessive thoughts that can lead to compulsive behavior. These work together in a cycle that can take over control of a person’s life, making it difficult for them to function in their daily activities.

For example, a person may struggle with the fear of being contaminated. When they go out of the house, as soon as they touch something that might be unclean, they start to wonder if they now have germs that could make them sick. But it’s not just wondering about it; it’s obsessing over it. The thought just keeps coming back, and it makes it difficult to move on to something else. This causes anxiety, leading them to engage in compulsive behavior to end the anxiety and obsessive thought. For this example, the person may wash their hands until they feel clean. Then they experience what they think is a relief, but it’s only temporary until they touch the next thing that could be unclean.

But it’s not just about handwashing. There are different types of OCD tendencies that people may experience.

OCD Behaviors

Living with OCD can be difficult. The obsessive thoughts that you experience are stronger than many people realize. And while people may see what you’re doing and think that it’s something you’re choosing to do, it’s likely to be something you feel like you have to do. While they may see the physical symptoms of OCD, what’s happening on the outside, they have no idea the aggressive thoughts that you’re experiencing quietly on your own.

Here are some of the common behaviors that occur due to OCD:

Contamination And OCD Cleaning

People who are struggling with OCD in this form are fearful of becoming contaminated or contaminating others. This tends to lead to them developing a compulsion to clean. This could include washing their hands repeatedly, even to the point that they are dry, chapped, and hurting. It could also cause them to shower repeatedly.

But OCD cleaning doesn’t just stop with the person. Some people struggle with feeling the need for the obsessive cleaning of objects. This could include things that people often touch, such as doorknobs, cell phones, light switches, keys, and credit or debit cards. But it could also be anything that they think could have become contaminated or dirty.

Person in White Long Sleeve Shirt Sitting Beside Brown Wooden Table

Fear of contamination can also lead to people avoiding things that they think could be dirty or contaminated. While this may seem like a good idea for people to avoid touching contaminated things, it’s important to remember that there is a difference with a person who has OCD. This could lead them to avoid things like going to stores, make it difficult to take care of an ill family member, or cause a struggle to work.

Even if someone doesn’t avoid those things, they may struggle to be on time because they need to change their clothes, take a shower or wash their hands again before leaving. And they may go through the same cycle again when returning home to keep their house clean and safe.

Symmetry And Ordering

This is another compulsion from OCD that is sometimes depicted on television and generally is done so in a way to bring humor. However, once again, OCD is not humorous or something that should be used for jokes. The compulsions that a person experiences are real and are linked with OCD fear and anxiety. It’s not just that they like things to look a certain way.

Many don’t realize that someone with OCD may be trying to keep items evenly numbered or lined up a certain way because they experience extreme anxiety that if they don’t, something bad could happen. Or it could be that they have a difficult time focusing on anything else until things are in the right place or space in a certain way.

And it’s not just about the way things are placed. The compulsive behavior can carry into the actions of the person. For example, when drinking from a cup, they may need to use both hands instead of just one or pass through a door straight through instead of one side of their body coming through before the other.

Other examples of what this can look like in real life include needing to space the hangers in their closet evenly apart or grouping clothes by their color, even to the point of getting rid of a clothing item that doesn’t fit into one of the categories.

Close-up of Row

This can also cause them to need to do things an even number of times. For example, if they touch something three times, they may feel the need to touch it a fourth time to keep it even.

Mental Rituals Or Compulsions

Some people with OCD label themselves “Pure O.” They believe that they have only the obsessive side of OCD because they don’t engage in any compulsive actions or behaviors. However, what many people don’t realize is that compulsive behaviors don’t have to be physically done, and others can see. They may struggle with a mental compulsion.

For example, they may feel they need to think certain thoughts in response to something that happened. For example, if they are religious, they may believe that if they do something wrong, they need to think through a specific prayer or say a certain verse or phrase to stop something bad from happening.

 Some people who struggle with OCD may have to replay conversations in their heads over and over again. Or they may silently count items in a certain way. They may have a phrase that they need to think about at certain times of the day or if certain things happen.

Suppose you believe that you’re struggling with obsessive thoughts. In that case, even if you don’t have any compulsive behavior that you notice, it can be important to work with a mental health professional to address your thoughts. There’s a chance that you may also have a compulsive response but that it’s mental and not physical.

Checking And Harmful Thoughts

Checking is a compulsive behavior that happens as a result of OCD fear. People who fear that something bad will happen to themselves or someone else and that it will be their fault. So they compulsively do certain behaviors to stop that from happening.

This could look like someone needing to check and recheck that they’ve locked doors, turned the stove off, shut windows, or unplugged the iron or toaster. It can make it difficult for them to be on time when they need to go places because these thoughts can keep them walking through the house, repeatedly making sure that they’ve done everything they need to.

Person Holding Gold Padlock With Key

This could also look like needing to reread over work emails, text messages, or other documents repeatedly before sending them and then going back and reading them after being sent for fear of errors. While being thorough in your work and communication is a good thing, the compulsive behavior that can come with OCD becomes excessive and time-consuming. It also tends to happen out of fearful thoughts, which is also a problem.

Disturbing Thoughts

An often unspoken OCD tendency is having intrusive, disturbing thoughts. These are often violent or sexual. It could repeatedly be picturing harming or killing a person or having sexual thoughts about someone that you don’t want to be attracted to, such as a family member.

These thoughts can leave a person with OCD feeling confused. They may wonder if the things they are thinking about are things they want to do. This can cause high levels of anxiety in their life. They may fear that they will do the things that they have thought about. While some of these thoughts are things that most people experience from time to time, the person with OCD may become fixated.

This can cause them to avoid certain things for fear of what they might do, or they might feel they need to think of certain things to try to make up for the thoughts they’ve had.

OCD Treatment And Help

Content woman using laptop on floor

As you can see, living with OCD can come with many different challenges that can impact the way your daily life goes. However, you can explore different treatment options that can help you manage OCD, so it doesn’t manage you. If you’re wondering if OCD may be something you struggle with, you can take this online OCD quiz to learn more. If you are interested in learning what you can do about your OCD symptoms, reach out to a therapist or mental health professional to explore your options.