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What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

  • Having obsessions or compulsions to carry out rituals or actions 
  • Having intrusive thoughts or worries that you can’t get rid of
  • OCD is not simply liking things to be neat, organised or clean, it’s a common mental health condition


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD is a mental health condition characterised by obsessions and/or compulsions that affect everyday life. Obsessions can range from fear of germs, to violent thoughts about yourself or other people, while compulsions are actions or rituals carried out over and over again to try to fix or solve a worry or anxiety. 

OCD can affect anybody at any time, but symptoms tend to build up gradually. Often people don’t notice them until they begin to affect how they go about their daily lives. People struggling with OCD often experience severe anxiety due to obsessive or compulsive thoughts. To help reduce the anxiety caused by these thoughts, those with OCD will often develop complicated rituals.

If you’re struggling with obsessive, compulsive or intrusive thoughts, you should talk to someone. The CALM helpline is open from 5pm to midnight everyday to chat about whatever you’re going through, or you can contact OCDUK for more information and guidance.

How does OCD feel?

Symptoms of OCD tend to surface gradually, but can be long-lasting without treatment. Some people will experience either obsessions or compulsions, while others may have both. These feelings can make school, work, relationships, or just your everyday life, difficult. 

You may have heard someone referred to as ‘a bit OCD’ because of the way they like to keep tidy or be punctual. This is a really damaging stereotype for people who are living with OCD. OCD is a real mental health condition that can be distressing

It’s estimated that 750,000 people are affected by OCD in the UK alone. It’s important to remember that if you’re experiencing obsessive or compulsive thoughts, there is nothing wrong with you, and there is help out there. There are a number of ways to cope with the symptoms of OCD, and talking to someone like CALM or your GP will help you find ways that work for you.

What are obsessions?

Obsessions are characterised by ideas or images you can’t shake. These can be distressing or alarming and may include worries about some of the following:

  • Fear of being contaminated by germs, or contaminating others 
  • Violent or unwanted sexual thoughts about yourself or others
  • Order and symmetry: Needing everything to be in a certain order
  • Unwanted thoughts on taboo topics
  • Superstitions

What are Compulsions? 

Compulsions are behaviours done repeatedly to try and alleviate anxiety. These are often related to obsessions. For example, you may be anxious about being contaminated by germs, so are compelled to wash your hands over and over. While compulsions and obsessions are sometimes related, this isn’t always the case. Compulsions may include:

  • Checking things repeatedly, such as appliances or locks
  • Counting, tapping, or doing other rituals
  • Excessive washing or cleaning
  • Arranging things so they are always in a certain order
  • Continually checking in with loved ones to make sure they are safe

OCD is more than just wanting to keep a clean house – it’s a constant inability to control one’s thoughts and behaviours, even when those thoughts and behaviours may be excessive or irrational. This can be draining and often involves spending an hour or more a day on obsessions and compulsions. This can be disruptive and dampen enjoyment of life. If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, common feelings include: 

  • Difficulty concentrating/feeling exhausted
  • Feeling lonely or ashamed
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Feeling like you have to hide your condition

Where can I find help?

  • Talk to CALM from 5pm to midnight everyday. Our professional helpline workers are there to talk and to help you find ways to move forward. Calls and webchats are free, anonymous, non-judgemental and confidential. 
  • Self-refer yourself to NHS Psychological Therapies here. 
  • See a GP – they’ll ask about your symptoms and can refer you to a local psychological therapies service if necessary.

Dealing with OCD

It can be difficult to know how to reach out, but OCD is a chronic, long-lasting condition that can worsen over time without professional support. As well as speaking with your doctor, there are a few self-help tips you can try to help you manage your symptoms: 

  • Self-care. Looking after yourself can help you cope with stress, which can worsen OCD symptoms. Plenty of sleep, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy diet can make it easier to manage the worries life throws at you. 
  • Give relaxation techniques a go. It might not seem like your bag, but meditation, deep breathing, visualisation and progressive muscle relaxation can be useful tools.
  • You’re not alone. Join a group where people may be having a similar experience to you. Social support is great for mental wellbeing and support groups can offer a safe space to share your feelings. You can find more information on support groups here.
  • Try to work out what your triggers are. When you turn the oven off, make a mental picture, or say to yourself ‘I have turned the oven off’. That way, if the thought that you haven’t turned the oven off comes up, it’s easier to dismiss. 
  • Set a time to let your thoughts in.  You could try to write down your thoughts as you have them during the day, then set a time to look at them when it’s more convenient. Consider each thought, if they are logical then think about them, if they don’t then acknowledge that and dismiss them. 
  • Find out about Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). ERP therapy encourages you to face your worries and anxieties and let obsessive thoughts occur without correcting or neutralising them.

Talking about OCD

Your friends and family may not understand what it’s like to live with OCD. If you’re finding it hard to put things into words, here are some ways to bring up how you may be feeling:


“I want to tell you some struggles I’m having because of my OCD. I’ve been worried to tell you because (X).”


“I’m telling you this because I want you to understand what I’ve been going through recently.”


“I feel like I need professional help but I need your support to do this.”

Header illustration by Tom Abbiss Smith


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