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OCD for Beginners

Learning More About OCD

This Introductory Guide is designed for people new to learning about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and covers important information about OCD and the OCD cycle.

Some initial information ...

1.  You are not alone! OCD is a very common condition affecting people  of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and cultures worldwide. According to research, about 1 in 50 people are diagnosed with OCD. That’s about 156 million people worldwide!

2.  You are not “abnormal” for having OCD. As mentioned above, OCD is common. Others may not always understand your OCD due to a lack of awareness and education, but it does not mean you are “abnormal.”

3.  Having OCD is not your fault. OCD is caused by a number of biological, genetic, and social factors. Yes, in an attempt to gain relief, people often engage with OCD in ways that make it grow stronger (i.e., doing compulsions). However, it is important to know that you did not do anything to develop OCD in the first place. 

4.  OCD is treatable! Exposure therapy is the gold-standard treatment for OCD. Thousands of scientific studies have shown that exposure therapy effectively reduces OCD symptoms. Recovery is possible – your life does not need to be consumed by OCD.

What is OCD?

OCD is a common mental health condition involving the presence of both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are repetitive, intrusive (i.e., unwanted) thoughts, images, or urges that cause distress and uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, guilt, shame, or disgust.

Common Themes of OCD Obsessions

The content of obsessions varies from person to person, but the below are some common themes of OCD obsessions. It is completely okay if your specific OCD theme does not fit one of the themes listed below! This list covers a selection of OCD themes and is not exhaustive; OCD presents in countless ways, and covering off all the possible themes below would unfortunately not be feasible. This list focuses on sharing information about some of the common themes of OCD Obsessions. Please feel free to click on any of the themes if you would like to learn more about them.

Compulsions (also referred to as rituals) are physical or mental behaviors aimed at reducing or avoiding the distress caused by obsessions. When thinking of OCD, many people think about physical compulsions such as handwashing or rearranging objects, but many people with OCD engage in mental compulsions that others cannot see. For example, people with OCD may mentally count, pray, review their memories, or analyze their obsessions to relieve their distress. 

Most people experience distressing, unwanted thoughts, images, or urges at times and engage in various behaviors to reduce their distress. For people with OCD, the obsessions and compulsions are so intense and time-consuming that it reduces their quality of life and limits their ability to do the things they value. Below is an example of what an obsession and compulsion can look like for someone with OCD.

Example  What Obsessions and Compulsions Can Look Like for Someone with OCD

Scenario: Andrea frequently has thoughts about throwing her baby out of the window. She cannot stop thinking about these thoughts no matter how much she tries to avoid thinking about them. The thoughts terrify her because they make her feel like she could hurt her baby, which she would never want to do. She also feels ashamed and believes she is a bad mother for having these thoughts. In order to relieve her anxiety and distress, Andrea frequently checks to make sure all the windows are locked, avoids carrying her baby near a window, and constantly tells herself that she loves her baby and would never hurt her.

In this example scenario, Andrea’s obsession is the intrusive thought(s) of throwing her baby out of the window. These thoughts are an obsession because they are repetitive, unwanted, and cause distress. Andrea’s compulsions include checking her window locks, avoiding carrying her baby near a window, and reassuring herself she loves her baby and would never hurt her; these behaviors are compulsions because she engages in them to reduce her anxiety and distress. Andrea is doing these actions to try to gain certainty that she will not throw her baby out of the window. She believes her intrusive thoughts and anxiety would stop if she could just gain certainty about the situation. 

The Vicious OCD Cycle

When people with OCD engage in compulsions to relieve their distress from obsessions, they get stuck in what is called the OCD cyclethe OCD cycle is when people with OCD have an intrusive thought that causes them distress, so they do a compulsion and experience temporary relief. However, the intrusive thought always eventually returns, which causes distress and results in people engaging in their compulsion(s) all over again. 



OCD Cycle

Temporary Relief


Although compulsions may seem alluring in that they can provide temporary relief in the moment, they do not relieve distress in the long run because OCD is a condition based in doubt and uncertainty. 


Continuing with the earlier example of Andrea, Andrea may feel a temporary decrease in her anxiety when checking her windows and seeing they are locked. However, the OCD doubt will creep back in, and Andrea will start questioning herself again: “What if the windows look locked, but they’re really not? What if I intentionally or accidentally unlocked the window when I checked it?” This doubt will make Andrea anxious again and compel her to engage in more compulsions to get relief.  

The OCD cycle is exhausting and goes on and on until people learn to effectively disrupt the cycle. Fortunately, OCD is treatable, and people can learn how to disengage from the OCD cycle and respond to OCD triggers in a helpful way.

We hope this Introductory Guide about OCD has helped you learn more about, as well as, better understand OCD and the OCD cycle.

You do not need to live a life overwhelmed and controlled by OCD. Equipping yourself with practical information for treating OCD and learning how to respond to OCD in an effective way can be life changing. Oftentimes, people unknowingly engage in actions that feed the OCD cycle

If you would like to learn more in-depth information about OCD treatment and recovery, you are welcome to read our Educational Guides on exposure therapy and other acceptance-based interventions for OCD:

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