Man with OCD cleaning

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder, whereby a person is caught in a repetitive cycle of obsessions (or perceived threats) and compulsions; which are behaviours intended to soothe the distress that accompanies the obsessions. These thoughts are unwanted and intrusive and can have a significant effect on day to day life.

Around two to three percent of Australians are affected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

OCD can affect anyone at any age, and can be quite overwhelming. The obsessions can play an enormously intrusive role in someone’s life, whilst the response behaviour, their compulsions; can become so acute that they engulf large portions of a person’s time and limit their ability to undertake daily activities.


What are obsessions?

Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive fears (or perceived threats), urges or images that constantly recur and can cause intense distress. These feelings are seen to be outside of the person’s control and can affect people in different ways – from slight annoyance and discomfort, to disgust and panic.

The obsessions may at times seem trivial to others, but for people suffering from OCD, they are very real and can have a significant impact on the person’s wellbeing. Even if the person suffering from OCD recognises that these feelings don’t make sense, it is often difficult to address them – these feelings tend not to respond to logical challenge.

Longer term, this anxiety can lead to hyper-vigilance for potential threats and entrenched behaviour that relies on a strict need for control – things have to be done in a certain way or it can trigger distress.

Some of the more common obsessions in OCD include:

  • Contamination – worries about germs or disease carried in natural materials, bodily fluids, dangerous substances or common chemicals
  • Fear of being the cause or fault of injury that may arise from an accident, like a fire or someone falling over
  • Fear of losing control of impulses that stop them from hurting themselves or others, such as insulting or swearing at others, or stealing
  • Perfectionist obsessions such as the need for evenness or exactness
  • Fear of losing items, memory, or the recall of information
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts, images or impulses
  • Religious or spiritual obsessions like intense concern about blasphemy, morality or sin
  • Superstitions.


What are compulsions?

Compulsions are thoughts, actions or behaviours that are intended to overcome the triggering obsession or soothe the distress felt about an obsession. These compulsions are often repetitive, and can provide temporary relief from the shame, anxiety or guilt that often accompanies obsessive thoughts. In many cases compulsions are ‘paired’ with the obsession, for example, fear of contamination and washing rituals, or safety fears and repeated checking behaviours.

Some common compulsions in OCD include:

  • Excessive washing and cleaning – including one’s own body, household items or any surfaces that are commonly used
  • Excessive actions to prevent transmission of germs like using protective items to touch common items
  • Constant ‘checking’ for mistakes and potential accident risks, including excessively evaluating actions and conversations
  • Physical actions such as constantly checking parts of the body, or tapping or blinking
  • Constant repetition e.g. re-reading or rewriting, conducting multiple actions such as locking and unlocking a door many times or
  • Going to extreme lengths to ensure that something is arranged or conducting in the ‘right’ way.


Other effects

People with OCD will often hide their illness from others, as people suffering from this condition frequently feel a great deal of shame about their behaviour. This shame can make the condition worse, and delay people seeking timely help. It can also impact social activities, work and study as it can attract avoidance behaviour, such as becoming housebound.

OCD is often accompanied by other mental health issues like depression and various forms of anxiety.


How is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder treated?

There are no quick fixes for OCD and related disorders, but there are treatment options that can help. OCD can be treated using therapies like anxiety management, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), exposure and response prevention (ERP) and sometimes with medication. The majority of people with diagnosed OCD will find benefit from these treatments.

In some cases, where standard treatments do not reap the desired results, more intensive therapies like intensive treatment centres, specialty outpatient clinics, and specialist therapists can be investigated.


Getting help

OCD should be properly diagnosed and treated by a doctor or mental health professional. If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be experiencing OCD, our counsellors can help talk through your concerns and determine next steps.


MensLine Australia is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with professional counsellors providing information and support for all emotional health and relationship issues. Call us on 1300 78 99 78 or access online counselling.