The Difference Between Obsessions and Compulsions

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. It involves intrusive and unwanted thoughts and the repetition of certain actions. Although people with OCD may understand their thoughts and actions are irrational, they cannot seem to stop them.

What are Obsessions?

Obsessions are thoughts or images that will not go away. An obsession is intrusive and normally seen as irrational, but the person with OCD is not able to stop or ignore these thoughts. Some common obsessions include the fear of becoming sick from germs or consistently worrying about whether the stove was turned off when they left the house. People with OCD often feel fear along with the obsessive thoughts.

Sometimes obsessions will be mild, only occurring once in a while. Other times obsessive thoughts will be constant. The thoughts can sometimes intrude into a person's daily life and are unwanted.

Obsessive thoughts can interfere with daily life, causing strain in relationships and in the workplace.

Some common obsessions include:

  • Fear of dirt
  • Fear of becoming ill
  • Constant thoughts of a certain number
  • Need to have something done in a certain order or a certain way
  • Fear of germs
  • Worry about whether something has been done "right"

What are Compulsions?

While obsessions are recurring thoughts, compulsions are recurrent actions. Mostly these will be quite mild but in more extreme cases they may develop as a means for people to try to relieve themselves from their obsessive thoughts. For example, when there is an obsession with germs, a person may continually wash their hands, even to the point their hands become raw from so much washing. When a person continues to repeat an action, obsessions may go away for a short period of time, however, they will normally return. Once they return, the compulsion will begin again, starting a cycle of obsession-compulsion.

Compulsions can interfere with a person's life. For example, a person may need to check to see if they locked the doors before going to bed. They may lose sleep continuing to check over and over.

Some common compulsions include:

  • Washing hands
  • Brushing teeth
  • Checking to see if appliances are turned off
  • Checking to see if doors are locked
  • Arranging items in a certain way
  • Keeping items, such as containers, even if they are no longer needed
  • Requiring constant approval from people around them.

OCD impacts between 2 and 3 percent of the population. It is an anxiety disorder and can be treated with medications and behavioral therapy.