What are the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Sudeepta Varma, MD
Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) include intrusive thoughts that are irrational or worrisome, paired with ritualistic behaviors or compulsions that alleviate anxiety. Watch psychiatrist Sue Varma, MD, explain the main symptoms of OCD.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder in which people have obsessions (unwanted and recurrent thoughts) or compulsions (repetitive behaviors that people feel driven to perform). Although people with OCD realize that their obsessions and compulsions are unrealistic and excessive, they have difficulty controlling them. Symptoms can include excessive hand washing or cleaning, extreme hoarding, preoccupation with sexual, violent, or religious thoughts, superstition regarding certain numbers, colors, or arrangements, obsession with order and symmetry such as constantly rearranging the sock drawer, and checking rituals, such as repeatedly checking that the stove is turned off or opening and closing a door a certain number of times. Such compulsive behaviors can take up many hours each day, making it difficult to perform activities of daily living, and often interfere with work, personal relationships, and family life.

Find out what symptoms are typical of obsessive compulsive disorder in this video with Wayne Goodman, MD, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) suffer from one or both of the following symptoms:
  • Persistent, unwelcome thoughts (obsessions)
  • Urgent need to repeat certain ritual behaviors (compulsions)
People with OCD realize that their thoughts and impulses aren't normal. They try to ignore or suppress them. They may try to hide them from other people. But in spite of their efforts, they remain in the grip of their obsessions and/or compulsions. Eventually, the thoughts and actions that stem from OCD can overwhelm daily life.
The person with OCD suffers from obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are disturbing, intrusive, and inappropriate, and which result in marked anxiety or distress. These thoughts and worries are not simply excessive worries about real life events or problems. You might attempt to ignore or suppress the thoughts, impulses, or images, or neutralize them with another thought or action, but recognize that these events are coming from your own mind.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors (such as germ avoidance, hand washing, ordering, checking, hoarding) or mental acts (counting, repeating words silently, praying compulsively) that you feel driven to perform in response to an obsession, or certain rules that have been adopted and must be applied. These behaviors and mental acts are designed to prevent or reduce distress or some dreaded event or situation, even though in reality there is no connection.

People with OCD:

Have repeated thoughts or images about many different things, such as fear of germs, dirt, or intruders; violence; hurting loved ones; sexual acts; conflicts with religious beliefs; or being overly neat Do the same rituals over and over such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, counting, keeping unneeded items, or repeating the same steps again and again Have unwanted thoughts and behaviors they can't control Don't get pleasure from the behaviors or rituals, but get brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause Spend at least an hour a day on the thoughts and rituals, which cause distress and get in the way of daily life

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Obsessions are irrational thoughts, fears, or worries that frequently recur and cause great anxiety, but cannot be controlled through reasoning. Common obsessions include the following:
- an extreme preoccupation with dirt or germs
- repeated doubts (for example, about having turned off the burners on a stove)
- a need to have things in a very particular order
- thoughts about violence or hurting someone
- spending long periods of time touching things or counting
- preoccupation with order or symmetry
- persistent thoughts of performing repugnant sexual acts
- troubled by thoughts that are against personal religious beliefs
Although an individual with an obsession realizes that the thoughts are unreasonable and not related to real-life problems, this knowledge is not enough to make the unwanted thoughts go away. In an attempt to get rid of the obsessive thoughts, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) engage in compulsive behavior.
Compulsions are repetitive, ritualized behaviors enacted to reduce anxiety caused by the obsession(s). Examples of compulsions include the following:
- repeated hand washing (often 100+ times a day)
- checking and rechecking (repeatedly) to ensure that a door is locked or that the oven is turned off
- following rigid rules of order (i.e. putting on clothes in the very same sequence every day, alphabetizing the spices in the spice cabinet and becoming upset if the order becomes disrupted)
Compulsive behaviors can become excessive, disruptive, and time-consuming, and may interfere with daily activities and relationships.

Continue Learning about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Say No to Nail Biting
Say No to Nail Biting
World War Z ($202 million), What Lies Beneath ($155 million) and Gremlins ($148 million) are the all-time, top-grossing nail-biters in North America, ...
Read More
What are the most common obsessions with OCD?
Dr. Wayne K. Goodman, MDDr. Wayne K. Goodman, MD
Unwanted obsessions are at the root of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In this WisePatient vide...
More Answers
When should I call my doctor if I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?
If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) you should call your doctor any time you feel your s...
More Answers
What Is Considered Mild, Moderate and Severe OCD?
What Is Considered Mild, Moderate and Severe OCD?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.