What is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and how do I know if I have it?

We all experience worries and concerns from time to time, but if you're living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), particular anxieties can be highly distressing and interfere with daily life.

People living with OCD experience uncontrollable intrusive thoughts and/or compulsive rituals they feel they need to do to control their anxiety.

OCD symptoms can affect every area of daily life, including self-care, relationships and work.

If symptoms are causing you distress or affecting your day-to-day life, it's important to get help. OCD is a treatable condition that can improve with the right treatments and support.

In this guide, we discuss how to know if you have OCD, when to get help and what supports are available.

What is obsessive compulsive disorder?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder where people experience obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviours or both.

  • Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, feelings or impulses that repeatedly come into your mind and cause you stress.
  • Compulsions are repetitive behaviours you feel that you have to do to deal with your anxiety.

3 out of 100 people in Australia live with OCD during their lifetime.

The condition can affect men, women and children but symptoms usually start during early adulthood.

OCD symptoms vary from person to person and can impact every area of life.

How to know if you have OCD

We all worry about hygiene, health and safety at times, but for people with OCD everyday fears like these can become exaggerated and distressing.

If the questions below apply to you, speaking to your GP is the first step towards getting help.

Do you:

  • Experience intrusive thoughts that cause you distress?
  • Do the same activity again and again in a very precise and ordered way?
  • Feel temporarily relieved when you first do a repetitive behaviour, then feel the need to do it again later?
  • Recognise that your obsessive thoughts or repetitive behaviours are unreasonable or unrealistic?
  • Spend more than 1 hour a day doing compulsive behaviours?

OCD symptoms

People living with OCD experience obsessions, compulsions or both.

Common obsessions

OCD obsessions are intrusive thoughts, feelings or worries that are uncontrollable.

Obsessions might always be on your mind, or they might be triggered by certain objects, environments or people.

In most cases, people with OCD know their obsessions are illogical, and usually the obsession is accompanied by a strong feeling of fear, disgust or uncertainty.

Examples of common obsessions include:

  • Constantly worrying about germs, contamination and uncleanliness.
  • Having intrusive and uncomfortable thoughts about sex, violence or religion.
  • Constantly fearing that you might cause harm to yourself or someone else.
  • Being concerned that things are even, in order or in the right place.
  • Needing to know or remember things.

Common OCD compulsions

Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental activities that become like rituals.

They usually follow specific rules and patterns and may repeat a particular number of times.

Doing a compulsion can feel like short term relief to your anxiety.

Common compulsions include:

  • Excessively washing your hands, taking a shower or brushing your teeth.
  • Excessively cleaning your house, car or belongings.
  • Touching, tapping or moving a particular way a certain number of times.
  • Repeating particular words or numbers in your mind.
  • Placing objects in a certain way following a strict pattern.

Common co-occurring conditions

People living with obsessive compulsive disorder may also be living with other health conditions.

OCD can occur with conditions such as:

When to get help

Asking for help can be hard, especially if you feel embarrassed or ashamed about your symptoms.

Reaching out for help is the first step towards recovery.

OCD is a treatable mental health condition and can improve with the right treatment and support.

You should speak to your GP or family doctor if symptoms are affecting your day-to-day life or causing your distress.

How is OCD diagnosed?

OCD is diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional. Seeing your GP or family doctor is usually the first step.

After an initial consultation, they may refer you to a specialist for a formal diagnosis.

During the diagnosis process, your mental health professional will assess your thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

They may also ask about your family history and run health tests to rule out any other causes of your symptoms.

In general, to receive an OCD diagnosis your symptoms will be:

  • Taking up a lot of your time each day
  • Excessive and unreasonable
  • Causing you significant distress
  • Interfering with your life and relationships

Treatments for OCD

Psychological therapy is the main effective treatment for OCD, and can help you better control your symptoms and manage your health.

There are different types of psychological therapies that can help with OCD, including:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy – helps you learn new and healthy ways to cope with your symptoms and improve your mental wellbeing.
  • Exposure and response prevention – helps you reduce compulsions and avoidance behaviours by gradually exposing you to triggers in a safe environment.

Your therapist may also recommend self-care tools that you can use to manage your anxiety in day-to-day life. For example, mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication such as antidepressants to help bring balance to your brain chemicals.

Support for living and working with OCD

Support groups

OCD can feel isolating at times. A support group can help you and family members connect with others who are experiencing similar challenges.

Support groups may be online or in person, and can provide emotional support as well as practical support for living with OCD.

Ask your doctor about support groups in your local area, or search online.

Mental health helplines

If you're finding it hard to cope or just need someone to talk to, you can contact a mental health helpline such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline.

You can also visit the government website Head to Health for more information about OCD and other mental health conditions.

Employment support

If you're living with a mental health condition and finding it hard to find work or hold down a job, you may be eligible for support through Disability Employment Services.

This is a government funded program that eligible participants can access at no cost.

To see if you're eligible and register today contact APM on 1800 276 276.

Further reading

After reading this article on how to know if you have OCD, check out our other guides on living and working with a mental health condition: