What is OCD?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety-related mental health condition. It can affect anybody, regardless of age, gender, race, religion or anything else.
Although it can be serious and affect your daily life, it is treatable.
There are two main parts to OCD:
- ‘Obsessions’ – These are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, impulses, worries, doubts or feelings that cause anxiety and distress.
- ‘Compulsions’ - These are behaviours or rituals that people with OCD carry out to try to stop the obsession.
Carrying out compulsions can bring short-term relief. It might feel like they are helping in the moment, but the relief is always short lived. Sooner or later, the urge to repeat the compulsions returns. Some people with OCD find that the anxiety never really goes away, even if they carry out the compulsions.
This can create a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions that can feel hard to break. It can take up lots of time and cause real anxiety and distress. This can get in the way of important things like sleeping, studying and socialising.
But remember, help is available and things can get better.
Obsessions are unwelcome or intrusive thoughts, worries, feelings, images, urges or doubts. Everyone’s obsessions are different, but some examples include:
- worrying about something bad happening, like your home burning down or someone you love dying
- worrying that you are going to harm someone else, or have already harmed someone else
- worrying about becoming contaminated – for example with germs, viruses, infections, dirt or dangerous chemicals
- intrusive sexual thoughts or images
- intrusive violent thoughts or images
- having a general feeling or sense that something is wrong, or that something bad is going to happen
- obsessively questioning aspects of your identity, like your sexuality or gender identity
These are just examples and this is not a complete list. Everyone’s experience is different, and obsessions vary from person to person.
You might feel scared, disgusted or ashamed about your obsessions. But it’s important to remember that having a thought about something isn’t the same as doing that thing.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or actions that you feel you have to do in response to an obsession. You may do compulsions to try to:
- reduce your anxiety
- ‘get rid’ of distressing thoughts
- ‘stop’ something bad from happening
- become certain about something you are doubting
Compulsions are different for everyone, but they can include:
- checking things – for example that you have locked windows and doors, or turned switches off
- checking memories – for example to check that you didn’t harm someone in the past
- asking other people for reassurance – for example asking people to tell you that something bad hasn’t happened
- repetitively cleaning or washing – this may be your own body or objects
- having endless internal arguments about whether you have done something bad
- counting or repeating phrases
- arranging objects in specific patterns
- avoiding situations, people, places or activities that trigger upsetting thoughts
- carrying out certain behaviours in order to feel ‘just right’
These kinds of rituals can be obvious to other people (like checking if doors are locked). Or they can happen inside your head (like counting things or trying to counteract negative thoughts with positive ones).
Again, these are just examples and this is not a complete list. Everyone’s experience is different, and compulsions vary from person to person.
I really understand how tough it can be to battle with that part of your brain. It takes a lot of time and kindness towards yourself to remind yourself that you are not your thoughts.
Common myths and misconceptions about OCD
Sadly, there are still lots of myths about OCD that you might come across. Below are some myths you might hear, as well as the reality.
Truth: OCD is a mental health condition that affects between one and two per cent of the population, according to OCD Action.
Truth: It’s true that some people’s experiences of OCD does centre around order, hygiene and contamination. And that is a completely valid experience. But it is not the same thing as simply liking things to be neat and tidy. The main difference is the distress that these obsessions cause for people with OCD. There is a big difference between liking things a certain way and feeling like you have to do things a certain way to avoid distress.
Also, many people with OCD are not preoccupied with order, hygiene and contamination. People’s OCD can revolve around all sorts of things, and it will look different for everyone.
Truth: OCD is not the same thing as perfectionism. Perfectionism is a character trait, whereas OCD is a mental health condition. With OCD, a person feels compelled to carry out certain behaviours. Someone with OCD experiences great anxiety and distress if they can’t perform compulsions. The difference is that perfectionism is not fuelled by anxiety. Instead, it’s a strong desire to meet high standards for particular tasks or skills. This can still be really hard to deal with, but it’s not the same as OCD, which is a mental health condition.
Truth: OCD is a serious condition that nobody chooses to have. Help and support is available, and people can recover from OCD, but they normally need help to do so. It is not something that you can ‘just snap out of’.
Truth: It’s really common to have intrusive thoughts about doing or saying bad things. Most people have these thoughts. But for people with OCD, it can be hard to shrug these off. Often people with OCD will question why they had the thought in the first place and what it means. This is distressing because the thought is so horrible to them. It doesn’t mean they secretly want to act on the thought. People with OCD are very unlikely to act on intrusive thoughts.
There is a focus on people with OCD being complete “clean freaks”, which is a common misconception. OCD is about control and anxiety - only a small percentage actually find comfort in cleanliness.
People with OCD have repeating thoughts, feelings or images that cause them distress – that’s the obsession part. And they have certain behaviours or rituals that make them feel better – that’s the compulsion part.
Reassurance-seeking and OCD
When we’re worried, it’s normal to want reassurance from other people. For example, if we can’t remember whether we’ve locked the door, we might ask someone: “Did I remember to lock the door?” Or if we’re worried we’ve upset someone, we might ask them: “Did I say something wrong?”
For people with OCD, it can be especially tempting to seek reassurance. It might help relieve anxiety about intrusive thoughts or obsessions in the short term. But this will cause problems in the longer term. It’s because of this that seeking reassurance is a compulsion too. This is because you might begin to rely on reassurance from others to reduce your anxiety, which fuels the vicious cycle of OCD.
Part of what keeps the OCD cycle going is doubt. You may want to know that something definitely won’t happen, but it’s impossible to get that certainty. So you may feel the need to seek reassurance, or do another type of compulsion, in an attempt to get certainty. But most things in life aren’t certain. And part of overcoming OCD is learning to live with an element of doubt.
How to get help with OCD
If you’re struggling with OCD, it can be hard to cope alone. But treatment is available, and you deserve the help and support you need to get better.
A good first step is to make an appointment to see your GP. They will be able to refer you to your local mental health services for an assessment. This can be a scary step, especially if you feel embarrassed or ashamed about the obsessions or compulsions you’re experiencing. But remember that it’s part of a GP’s job to help you with your mental health. The chances are they’ve spoken to other people who have been through what you’re going through.
For tips on speaking to your doctor about your mental health, have a look at our guide.
Anybody can go to speak to their GP. But the services available to you might be different depending on your age and location.
- Your GP should refer you for an assessment with your local NHS mental health service for young people. This service is called either CAMHS or CYPMHS.
- You may have to wait for your first CAMHS appointment. Because CAMHS is a local service run by a team in your local area, waiting times vary across the country.
- CAMHS will do an assessment and come up with a treatment plan. See the section below on treating OCD for more information.
N.B. Some CAMHS do not need a referral from your GP. Instead, you may be able to refer yourself, or be referred by your school or someone else.
Have a look at our guide to CAMHS for more information and advice.
- Your GP should refer you to your local NHS adult mental health service.
- Your GP may also discuss medication if your symptoms are quite severe. Have a look at our guide to medications for more information.
- Your local NHS adult mental health service will assess you and provide treatment.
- If things do not improve with this service, you may be referred to a specialist NHS clinic. If you’re unsure, you can always ask the person in charge of your care for a referral.
N.B. In some parts of England, you may be able to refer yourself to a local NHS service for talking therapy. Find your local NHS Talking Therapies service.
If the result of your assessment shows that it’s likely you have OCD, you should be offered the following:
The most common type of therapy used for OCD is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). You can find out more about CBT on our counselling and therapy page.
CBT with ERP is one treatment and should be offered together. For example, if you are starting CBT sessions it is recommended you also start ERP. These two approaches work together as one treatment method, as recommended by the NICE guidelines for OCD. (NICE guidelines are evidence-based recommendations for health and care in England and Wales.)
What is ERP?
With ERP, you face your fears (exposure) and let the obsessive thoughts occur without doing compulsions to neutralise them (response prevention). You start off small with things that only cause you mild anxiety. Once these become more manageable, you work up to the things that cause you more anxiety. This is referred to as the hierarchy approach. Your therapist should support you throughout this process.
You may also be prescribed medication to help with your OCD symptoms. Generally this will be a type of antidepressant called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
With the correct combination of professional treatment and support, people with OCD can improve their condition and recover.
Things that can help with OCD
The important thing is to find what works for you as different things will work for different people. Here are some ideas you can try:
Talking about how you feel is often the first step towards getting better. It might feel difficult to explain what you’re experiencing, and you might feel worried about how people will react. This is totally normal. But people who care about you will want to support you, even if they need a little help understanding what’s going on.
Let whoever you’re speaking to know what you would find helpful. Whether you just want someone to listen, or you need someone to help distract you when you’re feeling anxious, it’s okay to say what you need. Or, you might not know what you want from them. That’s okay too. Often just getting things off our chest can make a big difference.
If you’re not sure who to talk to, or how to start the conversation, have a look at our guide to reaching out for help.
OCD-UK also have a booklet that can help if you’re struggling to talk about your OCD.
Some young people tell us that they find it really helpful to have a distraction they can turn to when they feel overwhelmed. You could try:
- listening to music
- texting a friend
- doing something creative, like drawing or writing down your feelings
- putting on a TV show or film that you love
- getting outside
- something that uses your hands, like arts and crafts or gardening
Some of these might work for you, and some might not. That’s okay. It’s about finding the thing that works for you.
While distraction can be a really helpful tool, it’s important to remember that it’s not a solution. Challenging what your OCD tells you is a really important part of recovery. So, having distraction techniques can be helpful, but they’re not a replacement for therapy.
Real stories about OCD
Our bloggers share their experience of OCD to help you find ways of coping.
There are many other people who go through the same situation. Even though your family and friends may not understand to the fullest, they're always there for you and will try their best to support you.
OCD is misunderstood frequently and is difficult to deal with. But it's completely beatable with good therapy and sometimes, medication.
Know that your illness does not define you. Make the choice to counteract it and know you're worthy of a life without it.
Try your best to talk to someone you can rely on. It's easier said than done (I know), but once find that person - no matter who it is to confide in, you won't regret it.
It's okay. There's no need to worry, take a deep breath. Your family is safe, you're safe, and your friends are safe. Nothing is going to happen, sit down and relax.
Those negative thoughts aren't real, it's hard to control them but ignore them. Your body is just trying to help.
How to support a friend with OCD
If someone you care about has OCD, it can be really difficult to know how to support them. But there are things you can do to help.
Learn how OCD works
Learning about the vicious cycle of OCD can help you understand what your friend is going through. They may not feel comfortable telling you what their obsessions and compulsions are. But understanding the pattern can still help you support them.
Remember your friend's anxiety is very real to them
You may not understand why your friend’s obsessions cause them so much anxiety. That’s okay. The important thing is that you believe them and respect that the anxiety they’re experiencing is very real to them.
Ask them what they need from you when they're struggling
If you’re unsure how to support a friend, the best way to find out is to ask them. This is particularly important when it comes to offering reassurance. Many people with OCD will rely on seeking reassurance from the people around them. But this can make things worse in the long term. Try to find a quiet moment to speak with your friend and ask them what they want you to do in these moments.
Encourage them to get help
OCD can be really difficult to cope with, but it is treatable. Try to encourage your friend to get help if they haven’t already. You could even offer to go with them to the doctor’s for moral support.
Look after yourself
It’s great that you want to support your friend, but remember that you don’t have to fix things. Make sure you have time to look after yourself as well.
Get help now
Where to get help
OCD can be really hard to cope with, so please don't struggle alone. Here are some services that can help and support you.
Supports people struggling with panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety-related issues - and provides support and information for their carers.
Call 01952 680835 for a recorded breathing exercise to help you through a panic attack (available 24/7).
- Opening times:
- 10am - 10pm, 365 days a year
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
- Opening times:
This page was reviewed in November 2023.
It was co-created by young people with lived experience of OCD.
We will next review the page in 2026.
YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.
Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.
Please be aware that this form isn’t a mental health support service. If you are in crisis right now and want to talk to someone urgently, find out who to contact on our urgent help page.