Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common form of anxiety disorder involving distressing, repetitive thoughts that can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.  It is estimated that OCD occurs in around 1.1% of the general population in the UK.1


Symptoms of OCD involve both ‘obsessions’ and ‘compulsions.2

Obsessions are distressing or frightening repetitive thoughts which come into your mind automatically, however irrational they may seem and however much you try to resist or ignore them.  Some people describe these thoughts as being like a ‘stuck record’ and trying to stop them can sometimes make them worse.

Compulsions are actions which people feel they must repeat to feel less anxious or to stop their obsessive thoughts.  For example, someone may have obsessive thoughts about germs and the diseases they could catch.  To cope with this anxiety, they mays start washing their hands over and over again.  Other compulsive rituals may have no connection to the nature of the obsessive thoughts.

Common obsessions include:

  • Fear of contamination
  • Fear of causing harm to someone else
  • Fear of behaving unacceptably
  • Need for symmetry or exactness
  • Compulsions commonly involve checking, cleaning, counting or dressing rituals.  Carrying out a ritual usually gives people temporary relief from their anxiety. At other times, they can be full of doubt that they have carried out the ritual properly and so repeat the ritual to ‘get it right’ – a process that can go on for hours. 
  • Occasionally having worries, anxieties, or habitual behaviours is very common, and is not necessarily a sign of OCD. However, if thoughts and behaviours seem excessive, cause distress, and impact on your ability to carry out your daily life, then it is important to ask for help. 


There are many different factors that may contribute to the development of mental health problems like OCD, and the exact causes are not yet fully understood. These factors include biological factors, and psychological or social factors. For example:

  • Family history – people with a family member with OCD may be more at risk of having OCD.
  • Differences in the brain – some people with OCD may have lower levels of a chemical called serotonin or areas of increased brain activity.4
  • Life events – certain life experiences such as bullying, or abuse may mean that some people are more at risk of experiencing OCD.  OCD may also develop after significant life events such as childbirth or a bereavement.5

Getting Support

There are a range of approaches for the treatment and management of OCD, and the most appropriate method will vary person-to-person. The first step in accessing support is speaking to a healthcare provider, like your GP, who may then refer you for more specialist help.

Two common approaches to managing and treating OCD are:

  • Psychological therapy – This can involve working through thoughts, feelings, and behaviours with a mental health professional in regular sessions, over a set period of time. One common type of psychological therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help to teach strategies for recognising and overcoming distressing or anxious thoughts.2
  • Medication – medications can be used to help manage and treat the symptoms of OCD. Your GP or healthcare provider can discuss different medication options. For more information about medication for anxiety disorders like OCD, visit the NHS Choices website.2

Joining OCD support groups can also be a helpful space where you can socialise with peers and gain reassurance and advice. 

Further Information and Resources

Finding support groups in your area through:

Date last updated: 

This page was last updated on 30/01/2019. 


  1. Torres, A., Prince, M., Bebbington, P., Bhugra, D., Brugha, T., Farrell, M., Jenkins, R., Lewis, G., Meltzer, H. and Singleton, N. (2006). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Prevalence, Comorbidity, Impact, and Help-Seeking in the British National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey of 2000. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(11), pp.1978-1985.
  2. NHS (2016) Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  Retrieved from: [1] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/
  3. Pauls, D. (2008). The genetics of obsessive compulsive disorder: A review of the evidence. American Journal Of Medical Genetics Part C: Seminars In Medical Genetics, 148C(2), 133-139.
  4. van Dijk, A., Klompmakers, A., & Denys, D. (2008). Role of serotonin in obsessive–compulsive disorder. Future Neurology, 3(5), 589-603.
  5. Cromer, K., Schmidt, N., & Murphy, D. (2007). An investigation of traumatic life events and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 45(7), 1683-1691.
  6. Wetterneck, C., Little, T., Chasson, G., Smith, A., Hart, J., Stanley, M., & Björgvinsson, T. (2011). Obsessive–compulsive personality traits: How are they related to OCD severity?. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 25(8), 1024-1031.