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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

This is a mental illness made up of two parts: obsessions and compulsions. People may experience obsessions, compulsions, or both, which can cause a significant amount of distress in the person’s life.


Obsessions are unwanted and repetitive thoughts, urges, or images that don’t go away. They cause a lot of anxiety. For example, someone might worry about making people they love sick by passing along germs. Obsessions can focus on anything. These obsessive thoughts can be uncomfortable.

Compulsions are actions or repetitive behaviours meant to reduce anxiety caused by obsessions. Compulsions may be behaviours like washing, cleaning, or ordering things in a certain way. Other actions are not obvious to others. For example, some people may count things or repeat phrases in their mind. Some people describe it as feeling like they have to do something until it feels ‘right.’ It’s important to understand that compulsions are a way to cope with obsessions. Someone who experiences OCD may experience distress if they can’t complete the compulsion.

People who experience OCD usually know that obsessions and compulsions don’t make sense, but they still feel like they can’t control them. Obsessions and compulsions can also change over time.

When obsessions and compulsions get out of control, it is called obsessive-compulsive disorder.

OCD is an anxiety disorder that affects both men and women at an equal rate. It usually begins gradually with approximately two thirds of people with OCD developing the disorder in adolescence or early adulthood.

Who does it affect?

OCD can affect anyone. Researchers don’t know exactly what causes OCD, but there are likely many different factors involved, such as family history, biology, and life experiences.

What are the signs and symptoms of OCD?

The main symptoms of OCD are recurrent obsessions or compulsions that interfere with a person's life. The symptoms:

  • Take up more than one hour a day or
  • Causesignificant distress or impairment in normal functioning.

At some point, the person is aware that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable. Often, they feel ashamed.

Common obsessions include:

  • Fear of contamination (fear of dirt, germs, body fluids or diseases);
  • Repeated doubting (e.g., whether the stove is turned off);
  • Focus on exactness and order;
  • Preoccupation with religious images and thoughts or fear of having blasphemous thoughts;
  • Fear of harming oneself or others;
  • Fear of blurting out obscenities in public;
  • Forbidden or unwanted sexual thoughts, images or urges.

Common compulsions include excessive:

  • Cleaning/washing (e.g., washing hands too often, cleaning household items or other objects)
  • Checking (e.g., repeatedly checking paperwork for mistakes)
  • Ordering/arranging (e.g., making sure objects are in a certain order)
  • Hoarding (collecting seemingly useless items, such as paper, magazines, towels, bottles or pieces of garbage)
  • Mental rituals, such as praying, counting, or repeating words


A combination of psychological therapies such as behavioural therapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy and medication can lead to a reduction of OCD symptoms for a number of people. However, symptoms may persist at moderate levels even after treatment.  It is not uncommon for there to be some symptoms of OCD remaining and individuals never becoming symptom free.

* Adapted from various internet sources including WebMD, PsychCentral and CMHA

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