Man cleaning obsessively

Understanding Obsessive
Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts that cause them to feel driven to do something repetitively.

OCD affects two to three percent of Australians and can impact people of all ages and walks of life.

People with OCD are often caught in a ritualistic cycle of obsessions (or perceived threats) and compulsions that are excessive, distressing and time consuming. While they tend to be aware of the irrational nature of their disorder, often they don’t feel in control of these obsessions or compulsions.

For people with OCD, these unwanted and intrusive thoughts can be constant, significantly impacting their day to day life. Ultimately, obsessions and compulsions can influence unhealthy patterns of behaviour, whilst the response behaviour, their compulsions; can become so acute that they engulf large portions of a person’s time, interfering with their ability to undertake daily tasks.


What are obsessions?

Obsessions are usually exaggerated versions of worries or concerns that many of us experience from time to time. They can also consist of unwanted and intrusive fears (or perceived threats), urges or images that constantly recur and trigger intensely distressing feelings.

These feelings are seen to be outside of the individual’s control and can affect people in different ways – ranging from slight annoyance or discomfort, to anger, disgust and panic.

The obsessions may at times seem trivial to others, but for people suffering from OCD, they are very serious and can have a profound impact on the person’s health and wellbeing. Even if the person suffering from OCD recognises that these feelings and behaviours are irrational, it is often difficult to address them – obsessions can change in severity and nature and don’t respond to logic.

Some of the more common obsessions in OCD include:

  • Contamination – worries about germs or disease carried in materials, fluids, substances or chemicals
  • Fear of being the cause of harm that may arise from an accident
  • Fear of losing control of impulses that stop them from hurting themselves or others, such as swearing or stealing
  • The need for evenness or exactness
  • Fear of losing items, memory, or recall
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts, images or impulses
  • Religious or spiritual obsessions like intense concern about morality or sin
  • Superstitions.


What are compulsions?

Compulsions and obsessions are often performed to prevent something bad from happening, providing a seemingly short term relief to anxiety. However, these obsessive compulsive behaviours reinforce anxiety, making the obsession seem more real and ultimately, can lead to feelings of anxiety returning.

In many cases, compulsions are linked with the obsession, for example, you might check and relock a door repeatedly to prevent the risk of a break in.

Some common compulsions in OCD include:

  • Excessive washing and cleaning – including one’s own body, or surfaces that are commonly used
  • Using excessively protective items to touch common items to prevent transmission of germs
  • Constant ‘checking’ for mistakes and potential accident risks
  • Constantly checking parts of the body, tapping or blinking
  • Constant repetition e.g. re-reading or rewriting, locking and unlocking a door many times.


Other effects

It’s not uncommon for people with OCD to hide their illness from others, as people suffering from this condition often feel embarrassed about their behaviour. Unfortunately feelings of shame can make the condition worse, and the resulting secrecy can lead to a delay in diagnosis and treatment. OCD as a condition can also act as a detriment to social activities, work and study as it can attract avoidance or isolating behaviour, such as becoming housebound.

For many people, OCD is accompanied by other mental health issues like depression and various forms of anxiety due to the stress of living with the troubles of this disorder.


How is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder treated?

There are no immediate fixes for OCD and related disorders, however there are treatment options that can certainly help. OCD can be treated using a range of therapies, including anxiety management, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), exposure, response prevention (ERP) and sometimes with medication. The majority of people who are diagnosed with OCD will experience a positive benefit from these treatments.

In some cases, where standard treatments do not produce the desired results, more intensive therapy options like intensive treatment centres, specialty outpatient clinics, and specialist therapists can be explored.


Getting help

OCD should be properly diagnosed and treated by a doctor or mental health professional. If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be experiencing OCD, our counsellors can help talk through your concerns and determine next steps.

Need help? You can chat to a professional counsellor 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 1300 059 625 or register for online counselling.

You can also find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.