Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is when you feel an overwhelming need to do or think something again and again.

Two people running

What is OCD?

OCD isn’t about keeping your house tidy or liking things to be neat and orderly. It’s a serious condition that can make it hard to get through everyday activities. It can lead to social disability, such as children unable to go to school or adults becoming housebound.

Worrying about some things can be helpful. For example, thinking “Did I lock the door?” and checking once before you go to sleep can help keep you safe. However, having intrusive thoughts that you need to check the locks exactly six times or something terrible will happen is unhelpful.

Remembering to wash your hands before you eat is helpful and keeps you safe. Feeling an overwhelming need to wash your hands every time you’ve touched anything at all is unhelpful.

If you have OCD, you’re not alone:

  • around 3 per cent of Australians experience OCD in their lifetime
  • around 3 per cent experience it in any 12 month period.

Signs and symptoms of OCD

OCD can occur at any time during your life. Children as young as 6 or 7 may have symptoms and it’s common for OCD to develop fully for the first time in adolescence.

Only a psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose OCD. The list of common symptoms on this page can help you decide whether you need to take the next step and seek support.

If you have OCD you may:

  • have repetitive thoughts or worries that aren’t rational
  • constantly repeat the same activity exactly the same way.

You might feel relieved in the short term by doing these things, but soon feel the need to repeat them. You may also recognise that these feelings, thoughts and behaviours are unreasonable.

We recommend you get support if you:

  • spend more than one hour a day thinking repetitive thoughts or constantly repeating actions
  • find that these thoughts and actions make it hard to do everyday activities, like working, studying or seeing friends and family.

Common OCD thoughts and behaviours

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours can be about a wide range of issues. We’ve listed some common ones here.

Cleanliness and order

  • Obsessive hand-washing or cleaning because you’re afraid of germs.
  • Obsession with order or symmetry – for example, an overwhelming need to do things in a particular pattern or put objects in particular places.

Counting and hoarding

  • Repeatedly counting items or objects - such as your clothes or pavement blocks when you’re walking.
  • Hoarding things - such as junk mail and old newspapers.

Safety and checking

Obsessive fears about harm occurring to yourself or someone else can lead to an overwhelming need to do things such as repeatedly check:

  • whether the stove has been turned off
  • that windows and doors are locked.

Sexual issues

  • An irrational sense of disgust about sexual activity.

Religious and moral issues

An overwhelming need to pray:

  • a certain number of times a day
  • so much that it interferes with your work or relationships.

Nicole’s experience with OCD

I started to exhibit OCD tendencies that led into pulling my hair.

Hear about Nicole’s experience with trichotillomania, a form of OCD.

Other conditions related to OCD

People with OCD may also experience other mental health issues including:

Effective treatments for OCD

Research shows that the most effective treatments for OCD are:

  • cognitive behaviour therapy
  • behaviour therapy (including exposure therapy)
  • antidepressant medication – for severe OCD.

Learn more about Treatments for anxiety

Should I get support?

If OCD is making it your everyday life harder, we recommend you get support. OCD is common and treatable but it doesn’t usually go away by itself.

You might feel shame about your need to carry out these compulsions, but you’re not alone. This is a common feeling for people with OCD.

Mental health professionals can offer you effective treatments without judgement.

Not sure where to start? We can help you find the support you need at Get mental health support.

Causes of OCD

OCD is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Known risk factors include family history, social, psychological, biological and environmental factors.

Serotonin levels

OCD has been linked to irregular levels of serotonin – a natural chemical in your body. It’s a natural mood stabiliser that controls wellbeing and happiness.

Environmental and learned behaviours

Sometimes OCD can develop because of something that’s happened to you or something you’ve learned by watching others. For example, you might develop:

  • a washing compulsion after catching a bad illness
  • an overwhelming need to check the locks many times because that’s what you watched your parents do.

Supporting someone else

If you’re worried about someone close to you, there are things you can do to support them.

Journey to recovery - personal stories

If you have an anxiety condition, you’re not alone.

Learn what anxiety feels like and how it can be managed.

Read and watch more personal stories about anxiety

Anxiety doesn’t stop for your AFL career

Living out his dream in the AFL, Liam thought mental health wasn’t something he had to worry about. His anxiety had other ideas.

Trauma and losing my coping strategy – Nicole’s story

After suffering an injury while dancing, Nicole struggled to deal with the impact of losing her greatest outlet.

References

Beyond Blue uses statistics from trusted references and research. For a full list of references for all statistics quoted on our website, please visit Statistics.