OCD: Examples of Symptoms and Experiences

Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT

Published 06/24/2022

OCD is the more commonly known and used abbreviation for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It is a mental disorder that affects about one in every 40 adults in the United States (about 2% of the population) and around one in every 100 children. This means OCD (at least diagnosed and recorded instances of OCD) is about half as common as depression in American adults, which is already a staggeringly high number when put into perspective. Having OCD isn’t an uncommon or shameful thing, and it’s simply important to know what people who have OCD go through and experience.

This article hopes to bring some light to OCD and its’ symptoms that are commonly experienced. OCD symptoms in adults are similar to OCD symptoms in children, although there are slight differences. Specifically, the symptoms of OCD in adults will be looked at in this piece, but they can typically be applied to children since there are many commonalities between the two age ranges.

What Is OCD?

OCD is a mental disorder that causes the person affected by it to experience a combination of obsessions and compulsions. So, what are the early signs of OCD?

Obsessions are defined as unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, or desires that cause worrisome emotions in the person experiencing them. The person experiencing the obsession will often know that it doesn’t make any sense, but it may feel impossible to stop acting on the obsession. They typically do not want to experience these obsessions and want them to stop, but they may have difficulty doing so. People with OCD might have the need for something to be done “just right,” such as the method of locking a door to ensure it really and truly is locked. An important aspect of obsessions to note is that these obsessions begin to interfere with everyday life and routine. This is a distinguishing difference from just having a particularly obsessive personality trait like checking your phone constantly.

Compulsions are defined as behaviors that an individual engages in while trying to deal with their obsessions and/or decrease their anxiety surrounding their obsessions. They’re actions that the person suffering from obsessions take to neutralize or stop their obsessions from bothering them. These actions only nullify the obsession temporarily, and these actions can be quite time-consuming. The person knows that these actions take time away from their everyday life and disrupt any activities that the person enjoys or finds very important. For instance, going back to the previous example of ensuring a door is locked, individuals suffering from a compulsion might have to lock and check that a door is locked three times to be satisfied that it’s safe to leave the house. Just as with obsessions, the person does not find compulsions to be fun or engaging. They’re a chore and something the person has to do. They don’t enjoy doing it, so organizing your pens by color because you like doing it does not necessarily mean you have OCD.

Although everyone experiences obsessions and compulsions in some form over the course of their life, that does not mean that everyone is OCD. It’s just like how everyone feels grief or a form of misery at some point in their life, but not everybody who experiences these emotions has a form of depression. The presence of obsessions and compulsions must negatively impact the person’s life so that they wish the obsessions and compulsions wouldn’t, but they feel like they can’t do anything to stop them.

If these actions or behaviors sound familiar because you experience them yourself or you witness a loved one consistently acting according to these beliefs, then you or they might have OCD. If you would like some more clarity before contacting a doctor then you can take this short, evaluative quiz. This quiz is not meant to be used as a diagnostic tool, and it should only be used to determine whether seeking out a medical professional would be the proper next step. It’s only meant to give you a good first step into determining whether further action should be taken.

Compulsions and obsessions can further be broken down into more descriptive categories. These can offer more insight into a specific kind of compulsion or obsession.

Types Of Obsessions

There are seven categories that obsessions can be sorted into. They’re sorted depending on the subject of the obsession and not necessarily how the person acts on the obsession. For example, they’re not sorted based on something that would require the person to check and recheck and action they carried out just in case it was done incorrectly.

The seven categories are listed and explained down below:

  • Contamination

  • This relates to a person’s sense of cleanliness and safety from contagions.
    • Bodily fluids
    • Germs
    • Disease
    • Environmental pollution
    • Household cleaners/chemicals
    • Dirt
  • Losing Control
    • Fearing the inability to stop yourself from hurting someone else
    • Fearing violent or disturbing thoughts
    • Fear of saying offensive or insulting words without meaning to
    • Fear of accidentally stealing things
  • Harm
    • Fear of being the responsible party for a tragedy such as a burglary or a fire
    • Fear of harming others through not being careful enough, such as watching the sides of roads for any pedestrians and not seeing them in time
  • Undesired Sexual Thoughts
    • Feeling or desiring things that you shouldn’t about someone.
    • Perverse or taboo thoughts and mental images
    • Obsessions around your sexual orientation or someone else’s sexual orientation
  • Religious Obsessions
    • Excessive concern with morality
    • Concern of blasphemy
  • Perfectionism
    • Concern about the evenness of placements
    • Being concerned about knowing everything you have to
    • Fearing losing or forgetting important information should you dispose of something.
    • Fear of misplacing or losing items
  • Other
    • A concern with getting a physical illness that you cannot prevent (even when avoiding contamination)
    • Heightened awareness of superstitions

Types Of Compulsions

Like obsessions, compulsions can be broken down into categories. This time, five categories have been used to group types of compulsions together based on how they deal with their obsession and their concern to leave them alone. For instance, this would be where the person needs to check to see 

  • Cleaning

  • Washing your hands excessively or in an exact manner/order
  • Showering, brushing your teeth, bathing, grooming, or doing other routines regarding personal hygiene in excess.
  • Cleaning dishes, silverware, tables, countertops, and other household items and/or surfaces in excess
  • Doing things to prevent contamination of any sort in excess.
  • Checking And Rechecking
    • Ensuring and checking that you did not hurt anyone and will not do so
    • Ensuring that nothing terrible has happened last you checked
    • Ensuring that you did not slip up or make a mistake of any kind
    • Checking to make sure that you are not hurt in any way and everything about your works and looks as it should
  • Repeating
    • Rereading sections of text or rewriting things to make sure you didn’t miss anything and won’t miss anything
    • Repeating routine activities like walking in and out of doors and getting up out of chairs
    • Repeating physical motions such as tapping, snapping, or blinking
    • Repeating activities and motions a certain number of times for seemingly no reason, such as closing a door four times
  • Mental Compulsions
    • Mentally reviewing events and actions to ensure that no one will get harmed because of them.
    • Praying excessively to prevent harm from coming onto anyone
    • Counting out loud while completing a task to make sure that you stop on a “good” or “safe” number, such as tugging on a locked door five times to make sure it is well and truly locked
    • “Cancelling” or “undoing” which is nullifying a “bad” word or thing with a “good” word or thing
  • Other
    • Arranging and rearranging things until they are in order or position that “feels right.”
    • Asking or confessing to something to get reassurance, such as walking through an action you just did, like replacing the filter on your water pitcher to make sure that it was a good thing to do
    • Avoiding situations that might trigger obsessions even at the risk of disrupting your entire routine or having to cancel events

What Causes OCD?

Experts haven’t been able to place their finger on exactly what causes OCD in individuals, but they feel that it has something to do with genetics and the “wiring” of a person’s brain. OCD research suggests that it is tied to communication issues between the front of your brain and the deeper parts. Additionally, experts believe that there might be some sort of genetic predisposition to developing OCD. This does not mean that everyone with a relative with OCD will develop OCD in their lifetime; it just means that an individual with family members who have OCD has a higher chance of developing OCD themselves.

OCD doesn’t have one specific thing that makes it easy to point out. As shown above, the symptoms can manifest in dozens of different ways in various combinations. However, the one common link between the behaviors is the person’s lack of desire to actually act on these obsessions and compulsions. They actively disrupt their life, and they wish that they didn’t. If this sounds familiar, then reaching out to a medical professional and potentially obtaining a diagnosis might be the first step on the road to living with OCD.