Understanding OCD Thoughts: How Do You Help Someone With OCD?

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 06/27/2022

Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD impacts roughly 2.2 million people aged 18 and above in the United States alone. That's not including the number of children and teens with OCD. Research indicates that about one out of every 100 children and one out of every 40 adults in the United States has OCD. If you don't have obsessive-compulsive disorder, it can be hard to understand a sufferer's thoughts and behaviors. The media does not often represent obsessive-compulsive disorder effectively. As a result, most people think of obsessive-compulsive disorder as a disorder that only causes an obsession with cleanliness or contamination. However, that is not at all the only manifestation of OCD. In fact, only one-quarter of people with OCD struggle with contamination OCD. If you've ever thought, "what does OCD feel like?" or wondered what it feels like to have OCD, this article is for you. Read on to find out how to support a loved one with OCD and what OCD thoughts can feel like.

About OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health condition characterized by obsessions, compulsions, and often intrusive thoughts or mental images. As stated above, there are various types of OCD. Here are some of the potential manifestations of the condition:

  • Contamination OCD, which causes someone to fear contamination and attempt to avoid it by using compulsions such as obsessive washing.
  • Harm OCD. They may worry that their loved ones will be hurt if they do not engage in certain compulsions, whether that's repeating words or behaviors or something else, or they might fear being robbed, attacked, or something else, and engage in compulsions to prevent it. Checking compulsions very commonly pair with harm OCD. Someone might worry about the house burning down and checking compulsions like making sure that appliances are turned off so that nothing can catch on fire, for example.
  • Symmetry OCD typically includes obsessing over order and compulsively arranging items to ensure that they're "just right."
  • Relationship OCD, which may include obsessing over wondering if you're good enough for your romantic partner, second-guessing your feelings for someone, or obsessing over if you're with the right romantic partner or if you're a good fit for each other.

Someone with OCD typically deals with frightening intrusive thoughts or images if they don't engage in compulsions. To halt these intrusive, disturbing thoughts, a person with OCD will engage in compulsions, and as a result, they often feel that their compulsions control them. Without treatment, engaging in compulsions may feel like the only option - even if they're taking over your life. Some other forms of OCD you may have heard of include religious OCD, purely obsessive OCD (sometimes referred to as "pure O"), and sexuality OCD. Common OCD symptoms include obsessions, compulsions, rituals or ritualistic behavior, intrusive thoughts, intrusive mental images, anxiety, guilt, hypervigilance, and the repetition of words or actions.

Is OCD Real?

OCD is genuine. Organizations such as the International OCD Foundation can help you to learn about OCD. There are many myths about OCD that are essential to break so that stigma surrounding the condition will decrease, and more people can receive accurate diagnoses and effective treatment.

Understanding OCD Thoughts

Here's an example of how OCD thoughts might manifest.

Someone with harm OCD might feel that if they don't engage in a specific compulsion, anything from checking to make sure the doors are locked to make sure that they don't step on any cracks floor, something bad will happen. They may have intrusive thoughts that lead them to feel that if they do step on the cracks in the floor, something bad will happen to you or someone else, or that if they don't say I love you to you over and over again until they feel that it was just right, something bad will happen to you. What's going on internally is that this person has intrusive thoughts or even mental images of something bad happening if they don't engage in the compulsion. It's much like how, if you're afraid of spiders, you realize that it's unlikely that anything bad will happen to you if you encounter a house spider. However, you remain afraid of spiders and do everything that you can to avoid them. They understand that their compulsions are not logical on a basic level, but the intrusive thought is so strong and unnerving that it feels impossible not to engage in the compulsion. OCD thoughts are not the same as hallucinations or delusions.

OCD thoughts will be very different for every person living with OCD. That's one of the most important things to remember about the condition. It's also vital to remember that a person who has OCD and is experiencing these thoughts has the insight to understand that their compulsions and obsessions aren't necessarily logical. Certain things might make more sense to the outside world than others. For example, if someone has contamination OCD, and you know that you will likely understand why they are sanitizing everything or are washing their hands excessively. Someone with compulsions that seem less fitting or logical (such as repeating words or phrases) does not have less insight. Their OCD simply manifests differently.

What's The Best OCD Treatment?

Earlier, we talked about how someone with OCD engages in obsessions and compulsions even though they know they aren't logical. This is, possibly, why exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP, is one of the top treatments for OCD. ERP helps with distress tolerance and navigating one's thoughts. For all information regarding specific treatments, please consult a medical or mental health professional. If you have OCD yourself or think that you might, you may be wondering how to get treatment for OCD. Many people start out by making an appointment with a general doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist. At that appointment, you can explain your symptoms and work together to figure out the next steps. If you've never seen a therapist before, it's okay. A medical doctor will likely refer you to a mental health provider or direct you in terms of how to find services. There are a number of ways to find therapists and counselors who specialize in OCD, including going through an online therapy website, conducting a web search for OCD specialists in your area, contacting your insurance company, or using a provider search tool like the one in the upper right-hand corner of the Mind Diagnostics website.

How To Help Someone With OCD

Here are some ways to support a person in your life with OCD:

Read About It

If you are reading this article, likely, you've already started taking this step. There are many ways to learn about obsessive-compulsive disorder, including online articles, forums for loved ones, support groups for loved ones, and books about OCD. The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) has a list of resources, including reading materials and other learning materials, that can help you to learn more about OCD.

Ask How It Impacts Them

It's important to ask someone how obsessive-compulsive disorder affects them specifically. The same is true for other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. Even if two people have the same mental health condition, symptoms will vary from person to person. After reading about the different types of OCD mentioned above, you likely understand some of the different ways that OCD can manifest and affect a person. For example, one person with OCD might have contamination OCD with cleaning compulsions, where another person might have harm OCD with checking compulsions. Their symptoms and the behaviors affiliated with their obsessive-compulsive disorder differ, but they both have OCD.

Consider attending A therapy Session With Them

Especially if you are a family member or romantic partner, this is an excellent way to support your loved one with OCD. Ask if you can attend therapy or counseling sessions with them so that the provider can explain the obsessive-compulsive disorder and how it presents for your loved one to you. If your loved one ever asks you to join in on a therapy session, accept the offer. That's a gesture of love and trust; they're saying that they want you to understand and get to know this part of their world, and that's a big deal.

Community Support For Loved Ones

If you have a family member or another loved one who has OCD, there is community support available for you. You may try online support options, or you may find a support group that meets in person. The International OCD Foundation has information on its website about support for family members, romantic partners, and close friends of people with the disorder. You must take care of your own mental health while growing to better understand obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Take The Mind Diagnostics OCD Test

After reading about obsessive-compulsive disorder, do you think that you could have OCD? If so, consider taking the Mind Diagnostics obsessive-compulsive disorder test. While the Mind Diagnostics OCD test cannot replace a diagnosis or evaluation from a medical or mental health professional, taking it might just be the first step to getting the help you need and understanding what you're going through. The Mind Diagnostics OCD test is for those aged 18 and older, and taking the test is fast, free, and confidential.

Click here to take the Mind Diagnostics OCD test.