top of page

Real Event OCD

How Does Real Event OCD Present?

Real Event OCD involves repetitive intrusive thoughts about something one has done in the past. The intrusive thoughts cause significant distress (e.g., guilt, anxiety) and often make the individual feel like they are a bad person.


Due to the overwhelming guilt, people with Real Event OCD can feel that even their most minor mistakes are deserving of harsh punishment or unforgiveness. They may label certain past behaviors as terrible mistakes even when most other people do not view the behaviors as terrible or even a mistake.


In other instances, Real Event OCD can latch onto past behaviors that may not have been a person’s best decisions; however, the amount of guilt, anxiety, and self-condemnation the person feels is unwarranted and unhelpful. Others may tell the person that what happened was no big deal and to move on, but the unrelenting guilt and persistent questioning about the “wrongness” of their behaviors keeps the person stuck in a never-ending struggle with OCD.


 Scenario 1:  Lee suddenly remembered a time when he made an unkind comment to a friend in high school. At the time, Lee did not think it was a big deal and did not think about it further. Years later, the memory makes him very uncomfortable, and he feels the need to gain certainty about the situation and relieve his guilt.


In an attempt to get some answers, Lee starts to obsessively question things: his character (e.g., “What kind of person says mean things to a friend?”; “Is what I did considered bullying?”; “What if my comment lead her to have serious issues?”); his memories (e.g., “Am I sure I only made one mean comment?”; “What if I did something worse and can’t remember?”); and seek reassurance from his friends (e.g., “Do you think I’m a bad person?”).


Lee experiences some relief when he gets answers to these questions, but the relief is temporary because the OCD’s doubt eventually resurfaces, causing him to feel confused and anxious again.

 Scenario 2:  Shelia works at an advertising company. She and a colleague worked together on a project that did not go well - deadlines were missed and the quality of the work was low. For some reason, her colleague was found at fault and lost her job, but Shelia did not receive any consequences even though she was equally to blame for the low quality work. At the time, Shelia felt badly for her colleague but also felt relief that she still had a job, especially since her family relied on her income.


A few years later, Shelia was at a work event and the previously fired colleague’s name was mentioned, which caused Shelia to contemplate again her own role in her colleague’s firing. Shelia felt immense guilt for not previously speaking up for her colleague, and for not owning some of the blame. She Googled her prior colleague and found she is doing well career-wise, but even with this information, Shelia cannot rid herself of the intense guilt. She feels morally tarnished and believes she is a bad person deserving of punishment since she did not do the right thing years ago.

Sometimes, people who struggle with other types of OCD worries along with Real Event OCD find it easier to identify their other worries as OCD-related but treat their Real Event OCD worries as “real” and not OCD. They might think to themselves, “I did do something really bad so this can’t be OCD – this is real!” It is important to know that Real Event OCD is a common way OCD presents for people – even though the person is stuck on a situation that actually occurred, it can still be OCD.

It is important to know that Real Event OCD is a common way OCD presents for people, and even though the person is stuck on a situation that actually occurred, it can still be OCD.

Real Event OCD Compulsions

Compulsions are anything that people with OCD do to relieve the anxiety and distress brought on by their intrusive thoughts (i.e., obsessions, worries). The variations of compulsions are endless and vary from person to person, which makes it impossible to include examples of all possible compulsions in this guide. Below is a selection of examples illustrating a range of ways Real Event OCD compulsions present.

Examples of Real Event OCD Compulsions:

Mentally reviewing the real event repeatedly in one’s mind to find answers.


Purposely thinking about the real event repeatedly to punish yourself.


Avoiding public places for fear you will lose control and blurt out details of the real event.


Avoiding doing things you enjoy as punishment for the real event.

(e.g., “I don’t deserve to eat my favorite foods because I cheated on a test in middle school.”)


Comparing your real event to other people’s similar events to see if yours is “worse” or “better”.


Seeking reassurance regarding your real event.


Over-apologizing or punishing yourself harshly for the real event.


Engaging in handwashing or cleaning rituals to try to cleanse yourself from the

guilt and “badness” of the real event.


Telling people about your real event to assess their reactions.

(e.g., Telling a friend about shoplifting a few times in high school to see if they

no longer want to be friends with you)


Excessively praying and confessing to repent for your real event.


Needing to be hyperaware and in control of yourself at all times to prevent

the real event or other mistakes from happening again.

Help for Real Event OCD

Real Event OCD can feel tricky, confusing, and exhausting for those living with it. Fortunately, help is available, and OCD is absolutely treatable. The gold-standard treatment for OCD is a type of behavioral intervention called exposure therapy. In addition to exposures, there are also other highly effective acceptance-based interventions that complement exposure therapy for OCD. 

We hope that this guide has helped you to better understand Real Event OCD.

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:

bottom of page