what is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

OCD can be upsetting and lead to feelings of guilt or shame. Explore what it is and how you can get help if you or someone you know has OCD.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that involves obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions include unwanted ideas, thoughts, images or urges. Compulsions, also called rituals, are actions the person feels they must perform repeatedly.

The good news is that with treatment and support people with OCD can reduce or eliminate their symptoms.


What do OCD symptoms look like?

OCD is more than worrying or double checking things. People with OCD can experience a number of different obsessions and compulsions. When a person experiences obsessive, unwanted thoughts, ideas, images or urges they are often unpleasant and can be highly distressing for the person, causing worry, guilt or shame.

What is OCD


Obsession symptoms

When a person experiences obsessions, particular unwanted thoughts, ideas or images get stuck in their mind. Common obsessions involve worrying about germs, getting sick, dying, bad things happening, or doing something wrong (like violent or sexual acts). People with OCD usually realise their obsessive thoughts are irrational, but they are unable to stop them.


Compulsion symptoms

When a person experiences compulsions, they feel a strong urge to repeat a mental or physical behaviour or action in order to prevent something bad from happening, or to reduce upsetting feelings. There are many different types of compulsions including:

  • washing and cleaning

  • repeating actions until they are just right

  • doing things evenly

  • saying words or numbers

  • touching

  • counting

  • praying

  • hoarding or collecting things.

Compulsions are usually performed in an attempt to manage and make the obsessions go away. For example, if you are worried about germs, you might develop elaborate cleaning rituals and if things aren’t done perfectly you might think something terrible will happen.  

Obsessions and compulsions take up a large amount of time each day. They can cause high amounts of distress and impact a person’s ability to engage in their daily activities like study, work or relationships.


How can OCD affect other areas of life?

People with OCD symptoms might also experience other mental or physical health problems such as depression, anxiety , hoarding, eating disorders or using alcohol or other drugs to cope. Some people may also experience tics which are sudden brief movements or actions including facial grimacing, jerking body parts, throat clearing or blinking.

It’s common to experience anxiety symptoms with OCD. These can include feelings of panic or fear as well as physical symptoms like an increased heart rate or faster breathing. Often anxiety increases the distress experienced with obsessions, and can increase the urge to act on a compulsion.


The causes of OCD

The causes of OCD are not fully understood, but it’s thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This might include someone in your family having OCD, or it might develop after experiencing stressful life events.

Getting help

Sometimes it can feel difficult to let people know what is happening in your life, we might worry about how the other person will react, but talking to someone you trust – like a friend, family member, teacher, an Elder, or school counsellor – is the first step you can take towards supporting yourself and getting help.

If you feel like you don’t have someone you can talk to, a general practitioner (GP) is good place to start. There are also health professionals at headspace centres and eheadspace (online and phone support) who can help.

OCD is typically treated with talking therapy. Specifically, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with the support of a mental health professional. CBT has been shown to be very effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of OCD symptoms.

People who experience OCD may benefit from attending a support group where people with OCD as well as their families can meet with others who share similar experiences. It’s an opportunity to discuss symptoms, self-help ideas and strategies.

For some people experiencing OCD, medications may be recommended as part of the treatment plan.

In addition to support and treatment with health professionals, you might want to take a look at our tips on looking after your headspace.

Further information

There are many resources you can look at to learn more about OCD. The links below have tips and ideas on how to identify the signs, as well as stories about how other young people manage their OCD symptoms.

  • The Brain Scam – a young person’s journey with OCD

  • Teen Mental Health Magazine: What is OCD?  – A helpful guide for young people (Note this website contains links to overseas services. It should be used for information purposes only)

  • ReachOut WorryTime - ReachOut WorryTime can help you to set aside your worries until later, so you don't get caught up in them and can get on with your day. This means you can deal with worries once a day, rather than carrying them around with you 24/7.

For more information or support, visit eheadspace for online and phone support or find your nearest headspace centre.

The headspace Content Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 24 August 2023

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