Everything you need to know about OCD

12 December 2022

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a serious anxiety-related condition where a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome obsessional thoughts, commonly referred to as obsessions.

It affects 1.2% of the population and can involve a lot more than the symptoms it is often associated with, such as excessive hand washing and double-checking light switches are off before leaving the house.

In fact, for many people OCD is so life changing that the World Health Organisation has ranked it as one of the 10 leading causes of disability in terms of loss of income and quality of life globally.

Here's our five-minute guide to everything you need to know about OCD.

Know your numbers

Around three quarters of a million people are thought to be living with severe OCD in the UK today.1

What is OCD?

OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a relatively common mental health condition that causes obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

It affects men, women, and children, often beginning in early adulthood - although symptoms start in childhood for some people.

Fact or fiction?

People with OCD live in immaculate houses. Fiction! Not everyone with OCD cleans a lot, and those who do, clean because they feel they must, not because they love it.

What are the symptoms of OCD?

Having OCD means experiencing frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

The thoughts, which often cause feelings of anxiety, disgust, or unease, are the trigger for the compulsions or repetitive behaviours, which can help to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings created.

If, for example, someone with OCD has an obsessive fear of being burgled, they may well need to check all the windows and doors are locked several times before they can leave their house.

Other common behaviours linked to OCD include hoarding and paranoia about germs or contamination.

Do I have OCD?

OCD-type symptoms are experienced at one time or another by many people, especially in times of above-average stress.

However, these spells are generally easily managed compared to the symptoms experienced by people with severe OCD, many of whom find it hard to work or form relationships due to their condition.

So, how do you work out if you have OCD or you're just a bit stressed out?

A good first step is to take one of the many online tests available, such as this one from mental health service Clinical Partners.

If you are still concerned, you should also make an appointment to see your GP or refer yourself directly to a psychological therapies service in your area.

Fact or fiction?

We're all "a bit OCD". Fiction! You can't be "a bit OCD". You either have this often debilitating mental health condition or you don't.

How is OCD diagnosed?

When diagnosing OCD, doctors and other health professionals tend to ask questions such as:

  • Do you wash or clean a lot?
  • Do you check things a lot?
  • Do you have troublesome thoughts you wish would go away?
  • Does it upset you when things are messy or not in order?
  • How do these problems impact your life?

Depending on your responses, they will then generally follow the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines to decide whether you require treatment for OCD.

These state that:

  • The patient must acknowledge that the obsessional thoughts, impulses, or images are a product of their mind and are not imposed by an outside person or influence.
  • At least one obsession or compulsion must be acknowledged as excessive or unreasonable.
  • Furthermore, the obsessions or compulsions must cause marked distress, or significantly interfere with the patient's occupational and/or social functioning, usually by wasting time.

Did you know?

OCD is thought to affect slightly more women than men.2

What causes OCD?

As with many mental illnesses, there is no proven cause of OCD. Factors that can influence the likelihood of you developing OCD include:

  • Genetics - studies suggest you're more likely to develop OCD if a relative has it.
  • Chemical imbalance - mainly related to serotonin levels.
  • Personality - being naturally anxious or meticulous may increase your chances of developing OCD.
  • Life events - OCD symptoms sometimes come on after a significant event such as childbirth and may also be caused by abuse or neglect.

How can OCD be treated?

People with OCD are often reluctant to seek help because they feel ashamed or embarrassed by the symptoms of their condition.

This is unfortunate, as OCD rarely gets better without proper treatment and support.

Proven treatments for OCD include:

  • Psychological therapy - Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to help people with OCD avoid engaging in the compulsive behaviours being triggered by their fears and obsessions.
  • Medication - Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of anti-depressant, can help to reduce OCD symptoms by altering the balance of chemicals in the brain, although they often take several months to have an effect.

Some people also find a combination of therapy and medication the best way to treat OCD.

Know your numbers

About half of all those with OCD have a severe form of the condition.3

What support is available for people with OCD (and their loved ones)?

Living with OCD can be difficult, both for those with the condition and for the people close to them.

Fortunately, there are various charities and local support groups that can help you meet the challenges of having OCD or living with someone who has it.

Useful sources of information about these services include: