Should you need urgent health advice please contact your GP or call NHS 111. In an emergency please visit A&E or call 999.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): What you need to know

Mum and daughter smiling sat at the table
  • Date published:

  • Author: leighanjohnson

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition where a person has obsessions and/or compulsive behaviours. Anyone can be diagnosed with OCD. It is not a disease or an illness and you can’t catch it.

What causes OCD?

The cause of OCD is unclear but there are a few things that may influence an OCD diagnosis, including:

  • Family history – any family history of OCD can increase the chances of your child developing OCD. You are four times more likely to be diagnosed with OCD if someone in your family has it.
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain – people with OCD have areas of unusually high activity in their brain or low levels of a chemical called Serotonin.
  • Significant life events – OCD is more common in people who have experienced traumatic experiences. These events may have had a damaging effect on your child such as childhood neglect, abuse or bereavement. These can be events from the past or present.
  • Personality traits – If you are extremely neat, methodical, incredibly anxious or have a strong sense of responsibility for siblings, you may be more likely to develop OCD.

What are the signs of OCD and when do they start?

Someone with OCD will display obsessive and/or compulsive behaviours. Obsessions are usually intrusive thoughts, images or urges that make you feel incredibly distressed and fearful. Everyone has disturbing and unwanted thoughts sometimes but if you have OCD they affect your life, interrupt other thoughts and don’t go away. Some examples of obsessions include:

  • fear of purposely harming yourself or others
  • fear of hurting yourself or others by accident
  • having violent or sexual thoughts that are distressing.
  • fear of germs, dirt, disease and contamination
  • fear of contamination by disease, infection or an unpleasant substance
  • a need for symmetry or orderliness

Compulsive behaviours are usually behaviours to try and reduce stress caused by obsessive thoughts. These behaviours are unrealistic and will not help. Most people with OCD know that these behaviours are unrealistic but feel they must do it as they are worried about the consequences if they do not. Some common compulsive behaviours include:

  • frequent cleaning and hand washing
  • counting
  • tapping
  • ordering and arranging
  • hoarding (keeps things and struggles to throw them away which makes a lot of mess)
  • avoiding places and situations that could trigger obsessive thoughts
  • frequently asking for reassurance
  • repeating words in their head
  • thinking “neutralising” thoughts to counter obsessive thoughts
  • repeatedly checking things

Obsessive thoughts are usually followed by compulsive behaviour. People with OCD may experience the following cycle:

An example of someone with OCD may look like this:

Signs of OCD usually start around puberty but it can vary. Statistics show around 50% of people with OCD experience symptoms before the age of 18.

People often mistake OCD for being neat and clean. If you take pleasure in cleaning and appreciate the look of a neat and organised space, it does not necessarily mean you have OCD. Feeling a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment after completing a cleaning task is completely normal and is not a sign of OCD.

How is OCD treated?

OCD is usually treated with:

  • Talking Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT will encourage you to face your fears, rather than worrying about them and using unrealistic behaviours to avoid them.
  • Medicine – such as antidepressant medicinecalled selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These help by altering the balance of chemicals in the brain. The NICE Guidelines suggest that medication should only be considered when there are moderate to severe OCD symptoms.

How to get help:

Anyone can experience brief mental fixations, obsessive and intrusive thoughts or unexplainable urges to carry out a specific task or action. In general, obsessions and compulsions only indicate OCD when they:

  • take up a significant part of your day
  • are unwanted and upsetting
  • cause strain on your personal life and relationships

If you think your child is displaying symptoms of OCD, it’s important to seek help. OCD will not get better on its own. You can seek support by:

  • Booking an appointment to see your GP. Click here for more information on how to book an appointment or find a GP surgery. Click here if you are a refugee or asylum seeker to learn more about making an appointment with a GP.
  • Speaking to your child’s school. Your child’s school has a responsibility to provide support but they can only do so effectively if they have a clear understanding of the difficulties your child is facing. By keeping them informed, they can provide your child with any support they may need.


Useful links: