When can an Obsession become an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – “OCD”?

There is a fine, but distinctive, difference between having an obsession and that of having an obsession disorder in the nature of ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder’ commonly referred to as OCD. Indeed, OCD is an easily misunderstood condition, and can be highly distressing for both the person affected as well as their family and friends. In essence, OCD is an anxiety disorder.

People living with OCD are troubled by recurring unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses, as well as obsessions and repetitive rituals. People with OCD are often aware that their symptoms are irrational and excessive, but they find the obsessions uncontrollable and the compulsions impossible to resist.

Indeed, ordinary obsessions can take many forms, for example, a stamp collector who spends many hours deriving joy and satisfaction from collecting and cataloguing his/her stamps, may to an ordinary and dispassionate observer, appear to be a form of obsession; and that may be a fair view. Similarly, a motor sport’s enthusiast or avid football fan might also  seem obsessed to an ordinary and dispassionate observer. But here is the significant difference between an ordinary obsession and that of OCD.

OCD usually features a pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead one to repetitive behaviours (compulsions) which detrimentally interfere with the affected person’s daily activities and moreover cause major distress and impair their work, social or other important life functions. There is no joy or satisfaction derived by such obsessive compulsions. OCD, left untreated, can cause the sufferer extreme distress and leads to social isolation and ultimately social debilitation.

Returning to the example of the stamp collector, if that person regularly went without food for a significant periods because they could not bring themselves to leave their collection, so that their psychical and mental health deteriorated, and/or they became irritated and/or distressed when not with their collection, and/or their sleep was majorly interrupted because the collection dominated all other thoughts, then these symptoms could indicate the obsession-compulsion matrix to found a diagnosis of OCD.

If you suspect that you, or a loved one, might have an obsessive-compulsive disorder, the good news is that with treatment you can learn to manage, and hopefully ultimately overcome the behaviours that are putting your life, and the lives of your loved ones on hold.

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms over a period of a few weeks, or  otherwise for shorter periods in a reoccurring and regular pattern, it might be time to seek out professional help. While it is never too late to seek out professional help, the sooner you do the better the possibility of assisting you alleviate your suffering.

Obsessions often have themes to them, such as

  • Fear of contamination or dirt;
  • Doubting and having difficulty tolerating uncertainty;
  • Needing things orderly and symmetrical:;
  • Needing things orderly and symmetrical;
  • Unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects.

Examples of obsession signs and symptoms include

  • Fear of being contaminated by touching objects others have touched (outside of the current Covid-19 environment);
  • Constant doubts that you’ve locked the door or turned off the stove;
  • Intense stress when objects aren’t orderly or facing a certain way;
  • Regular thoughts and images of driving your car into a crowd of people;
  • Regular thoughts about shouting obscenities or acting inappropriately in public;
  • Continual unpleasant sexual images, a constant need for pornography;
  • Avoidance of situations that can trigger obsessions, such as shaking hands (outside of the current Covid-19 environment).

Compulsion symptoms

OCD compulsions are repetitive behaviours that you feel driven to perform. These repetitive behaviours or mental acts are meant to reduce anxiety related to your obsessions or prevent something bad from happening. However, engaging in the compulsions brings no pleasure and may offer only a temporary relief from anxiety.

You may make up rules or rituals to follow that help control your anxiety when you’re having obsessive thoughts. These compulsions are excessive and often are not realistically related to the problem they’re intended to fix.

As with obsessions, compulsions typically have themes, such as:

  • Washing and cleaning;
  • Checking;
  • Counting;
  • Orderliness;
  • Following a strict (non-divergent) routine;
  • Demanding reassurance, even for the simplest of things.

Examples of compulsion signs and symptoms might include:

  • Hand-washing until your skin becomes raw;
  • Checking doors repeatedly to make sure they’re locked;
  • Checking the stove repeatedly to make sure it’s off;
  • Counting in certain patterns;
  • Silently repeating a prayer, word or phrase;
  • Arranging your canned goods to face the same way.


The cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder isn’t fully understood. Main theories include:

  • Biology. OCD may be a result of changes in your body’s own natural chemistry or brain functions.
  • Genetics. OCD may have a genetic component, but specific genes have yet to be identified.
  • Learning. Obsessive fears and compulsive behaviours can be learned from watching family members or gradually learned over time.

OCD may have a genetic component. It sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. OCD usually begins in adolescence or young adulthood, and tends to appear at a younger age in boys than in girls. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour, as well as the fear and anxiety related to them. Researchers also know that people who have suffered physical or sexual trauma are at an increased risk for OCD.


Obsessive-compulsive disorder treatment may not result in a cure, but it can help bring symptoms under control so that they don’t rule your daily life. Depending on the severity of OCD, some people may need long-term, ongoing or more intensive treatment. In some extreme cases, referral to a Psychiatrist may be necessary including as for the prescription of medication.


Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy, is effective for many people with OCD. Exposure and response prevention (ERP), a component of CBT therapy, involves gradually exposing you to a feared object or obsession, such as dirt, and having you learn ways to resist the urge to do your compulsive rituals. ERP takes effort and practice, but you may enjoy a better quality of life once you learn to manage your obsessions and compulsions. Learn more about CBT >>

Author: Charles Pratten

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