Published On: June 9, 2022
Reviewed On: June 9, 2022
Updated On: July 17, 2023
What are the signs and symptoms of OCD? Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a serious but fairly common, and highly treatable, mental health condition. It causes unwanted thoughts and urges (obsessions) that are often followed by neurotic behaviors (compulsions) that detract from quality of life.
Understanding OCD symptoms and signs is the first step if you or someone you love is concerned. Knowing more about any mental health condition can help you determine if you should seek professional support.
Continue reading to discover more about OCD signs and symptoms and to learn how you can find support if you suspect (or already know) you’re dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Although it is difficult to determine exactly what causes OCD, a key sign of OCD is an obsessive thought about unrealistic and fearful things happening. It’s a continuous pattern that can (but doesn’t always) result in compulsive behavior in an attempt to thwart those unwanted, intrusive thoughts.
For example, someone with contamination OCD may experience debilitating fear about contracting a disease or infection. They may act on that fear by going to any (often unreasonable) lengths necessary to avoid contact with situations, objects, or people they believe could contaminate them or their environment.
They might have such severe OCD that they repetitively shower, change clothes multiple times a day (or hour), or incessantly clean their house. They could even end up washing their hands 70, 80, 90, or more times every day, attempting to clean themselves until they feel no more threat of contamination.
Regardless of how many times a compulsive behavior is repeated, the obsessive thought always returns. OCD is an exhausting condition to live with on a daily basis.
OCD typically starts in early life, often appearing in childhood, teenage years, or young adulthood. The average age OCD in children usually appears is around 19 years, yet many people live with the condition for a significant portion of their life before ever receiving the correct OCD diagnosis.
Some people with OCD recognize and understand that their intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors are not warranted or helpful. Yet how they think and act is beyond their control. It’s not just a matter of willpower. Most people who live with OCD truly feel that they absolutely must engage in their ritualistic behaviors and that not acting will definitely lead to terrible consequences.
According to researchers at the University of California, while there are many subsets of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it can manifest differently in each person. However, initial signs commonly include:
Repetitive thoughts, mental images, and urges concerning obsessions can cause people with OCD to engage in irrational behaviors, like:
In many cases, the symptoms of OCD will onset slowly. However, in rare cases, the condition can progress very rapidly. In almost all cases, without proper intervention and OCD treatment, symptoms will progressively worsen.
It’s important to note that many people in the world exhibit behavioral idiosyncrasies. We all know someone (perhaps it’s yourself) who’s serious about attention to detail or who likes their house to be exceptionally clean. Those are “normal” (and acceptable) behaviors for a lot of people. However, someone with OCD will have an obsession with persistent thoughts or engage in repetitive behavior for more than one hour daily.
What are the symptoms of OCD? It’s first necessary to differentiate between a couple of random compulsive acts and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Clinical diagnosis of OCD requires that someone experiences:
Now, let’s look at some of the specific symptoms of OCD to be aware of if you think you or a loved one might have this challenging mental health condition.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), thorough OCD symptom checklists include the following symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, some or all of which might be experienced:
People with OCD may also avidly avoid places, situations, or people they know or worry might trigger obsessive thoughts or feelings.
Compulsive behaviors are another aspect of OCD symptoms. These are mental or physical behaviors that might be done in an attempt to reduce nervousness or fear that’s related to obsessive thoughts or feelings. OCD can cause people to engage in compulsive behaviors in an effort to prevent dreadful things from happening.
Even in cases when people with OCD understand that their obsessions and compulsions are illogical, they still might be unable to stop themselves from experiencing either.
Common compulsions on an OCD symptoms checklist include:
Compulsive behaviors can also include grunting, swallowing, blinking eyes, and tapping distinct parts of the body.
Wondering if you may have obsessive-compulsive disorder? Take our free OCD test to learn more.
We know that OCD typically onsets during teenage or young adult years. However, it can also start in childhood. The symptoms of OCD tend to start slowly and progressively intensify throughout life. A specific obsession or compulsion may also change over time.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically a subdiscipline called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, is a science-based therapy for OCD.
“OCD includes obsessions and compulsions. In some cases, one is present and in some cases both are present. Some of the most common obsessions are fear of germs and a need for things to be in order. Common compulsions include checking behaviors and washing or cleaning. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat OCD symptoms.”
There are stark, obvious differences between someone who’s living with OCD and someone who simply appreciates order and structure. People with OCD will be consumed with obsessive thoughts, images, and urges that can drive them to perform neurotic acts to try and quell their thought patterns.
“If symptoms of OCD worsen over time, they can cause significant distress for an individual. Therapy and medication can really help decrease these symptoms and make it easier to function on a daily basis.”
OCD is considered a lifelong condition, so it’s essential to get an accurate diagnosis and work with a mental health professional to learn effective coping skills. Do not attempt a self-diagnosis based on any symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder you may be experiencing. A proper diagnosis of any mental health condition requires a qualified assessment from a professional clinician or psychiatrist.
From there, you can get the help you need. Online therapy platforms, like Talkspace, have licensed therapists available to help you learn about and manage all forms of OCD. With help from these therapists, you can begin to put a plan in place so you can live a healthy, happy, productive life. You can learn how to control your OCD, instead of letting it continue to control you.
Accessed April 30, 2022.
JAMA. 2017;317(13):1358. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.2200. Accessed April 30, 2022.
Published 2019. Accessed April 30, 2022.
Bisma Anwar is the Team Lead for the Talkspace Council of Mental Health Experts. A major focus in her work has been anxiety management and helping her clients develop healthy coping skills, reduce stress and prevent burnout. She serves on the board of a non-profit organization based in NYC called The Heal Collective which promotes advocacy and awareness of mental health issues in BIPOC communities.