Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (also known as OCD) is a common mental health disorder which can affect men, women, and children regardless of their race, ethnicity, or background. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 in 50 adults in the US are estimated to have OCD.

Living with obsessive compulsive disorder can make it difficult to function well in many areas of your life, including work, school, and relationships. The good news is, solutions like psychotherapy and medication have been shown to treat OCD effectively.


Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder that is characterized by a person having obsessions and compulsions, two concepts that we’ll explore below.

Obsessions are uncontrollable, recurring thoughts or ideas about things that are highly disturbing to the person having them. Some examples of obsessional thoughts are fear of being contaminated by germs, fear of losing something important, or fear of causing harm to a loved one.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels uncontrollably driven to carry out. Compulsions are used as responses to obsessions, allowing the person to temporarily relieve the distress of their obsession by taking some kind of action. Some examples of compulsions are endlessly repeating certain sequences of numbers, excessive hand-washing, and repeatedly checking door locks.

Types of OCD

There are many different types of obsessive compulsive disorder, largely because of the way OCD arises from a person’s unique fears, values and beliefs. This disorder is normally focused on what a person cares most about in their life, whether it be their religion, their family, or their health.

Some of the most common types of OCD are:

Contamination: With this type of OCD, a person becomes extremely fearful of being contaminated by people around them or their environment. They will often find themselves compulsively washing their hands or brushing their teeth as ways of trying to cope with this obsession.

Checking: When a person can’t stop checking that their front door is locked or that the oven has been turned off. This normally happens in response to their obsession with preventing disasters from occurring.

Ruminations: This type of OCD is when a person can’t stop dwelling on an unproductive question or idea, often in relation to religion or philosophy. The ruminating never results in any conclusion, so it becomes an endless process.

Symmetry and orderliness: People with this type of OCD are obsessed with things being neat and tidy, finding themselves compelled to arrange things around them to be perfectly symmetrical or lined up.

Hoarding: A person with hoarding OCD will hold onto items that should normally be thrown away, cleaned up, or given away. This happens in response to a specific obsessive worry or fear.

Intrusive thoughts: Having intrusive thoughts means a person can’t stop thinking about specific things that are horrifying and disgusting to them. There are many different types of intrusive thoughts, like obsessively thinking about hurting someone you love, or thinking you have to count to ten repeatedly in order to keep a loved one safe from harm.

What Does Having OCD Feel Like?

Living with obsessive compulsive disorder can be totally exhausting. A person with OCD repeats compulsive actions in an attempt to help fix something they’re obsessively worried or fearful about. This process may go on for years before a person seeks professional help for their disorder. The constant, repetitive nature of their thoughts and behaviors makes it extremely difficult to carry out normal daily activities such as eating, sleeping, or leaving the house.

Who’s At Risk of OCD?

There are several factors that may put some people at a higher risk of developing OCD. Some of these factors are:

Genetics: Some studies have shown that individuals who have a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with OCD are at a higher risk of developing it themselves[i].

Age: Children aged 8 – 12, late teens, and young adults, are more likely to develop OCD. It is rare for someone over 40 to develop OCD[ii]. In addition, boys tend to develop OCD younger than girls do. Gender: Women are slightly more at risk than men for developing OCD[iii]. Postpartum women are twice as likely to develop OCD than the general population of women.

[i] Healthline. Is OCD Genetic or Environmental? https://www.healthline.com/health/ocd/is-ocd-genetic

[ii] Cleveland Clinic. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9490-ocd-obsessive-compulsive-disorder

[iii] Psychiatry.org. What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/what-is-obsessive-compulsive-disorder

How do you know if you or someone you love has OCD? There are certain OCD symptoms that are obviously apparent, and these OCD tendencies can have an extremely negative impact on a person’s life. Let’s take a look at some of the most common warning signs of obsession and compulsion.

The OCD Cycle

People with obsessive compulsive disorder become trapped in an endless cycle that affects both their thoughts and behavior in a distressing way. Here’s how that cycle looks:

Obsessions: In this stage of the cycle, a person has intrusive, disturbing thoughts or urges that repeat themselves and become all the person can focus on.

Distress: The person feels extreme fear, disgust, worry, or shame.

Compulsions: In an attempt to reduce the distress they’re experiencing, the person uncontrollably performs repetitive behaviors.

Relief: The relief from performing their compulsions is temporary, causing the person to begin the OCD cycle all over again.

Obsessions and Compulsions

As we have seen, compulsive behaviors tend to stem from obsessive thoughts, creating an endless cycle of cause and effect. Here are some common OCD obsessions and their often corresponding compulsions.

Fear of contaminationExcessively washing hands or avoiding shaking hands with strangers
Pathological doubtRepetitive checking or overly needing reassurance
Fear of causing harm to a loved one or themselfRepetitive checking, repeating a word or phrase
Fixation on orderliness and symmetryArranging objects
Religious obsessionsReligious rituals such as praying
Superstitious obsessionsIllogical rituals, touching things in a pattern, repetitious actions
Fear of getting rid of old itemsHoarding behaviors

Early Warning Signs of Obsession and Compulsion

OCD diagnosis starts with recognizing the signs and symptoms commonly associated with the disorder. Here are some common signs that you or someone you love could have obsessive compulsive disorder.

  • Repeating actions or starting things over in order to get things just right
  • Spending too much time on simple tasks like washing hands or leaving the house
  • Living by a rigid set of rules
  • Extreme resistance to change
  • Extreme fears about things going wrong
  • Excessive checking of things like whether lights are off or doors have been locked
  • Intense anxiety when items aren’t organized or symmetrical
  • Fear of contamination
  • Consistently being late or missing appointments
  • Refusal to change up a daily routine
  • Repeating the same word or repeatedly counting for no reason

Obsessive compulsive disorder has several known causes, ranging from environmental to neurobiological causes. Because everyone’s life is different, individuals with OCD will have a unique combination of factors that have caused their disorder. Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of OCD.

Family History

Studies have found that OCD may run in the family. People who have a parent or sibling with OCD are more likely to develop the disorder themselves. It is unknown whether this connection is due to learned behavior (developing OCD in order to cope with their family member’s behaviors) or if it is a gene that is passed down from one generation to the next.

Differences in the Brain

Research has shown that OCD may have to do with the way an individual’s brain functions. A lower level of the neurotransmitter called serotonin causes problems in communication between the front part of their brain and the deeper structures of the brain[i].  


When a person has traumatic experiences, it can sometimes result in developing OCD. Trauma may include child abuse, bullying, or neglect. In many cases, individuals develop obsessive and compulsive behaviors as a way of coping with their past trauma.

Significant Life Events

It’s not unusual for people to develop OCD after going through a big change or significant life event, including having a child or losing a loved one.


Some people’s personalities make them more likely to develop obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is more prevalent in people who consistently hold themselves up to a high personal standard, as well as those who tend to be meticulous in everything they do. Individuals who are prone to anxious feelings are also susceptible to developing OCD traits.

What Causes OCD To Get Worse?

For some individuals with OCD, their condition may worsen over time. This can be caused by a variety of factors, from physiological to emotional. Let’s take a look at some of the most common factors that may cause OCD to get worse.

Lack of Sleep or Lifestyle Changes

There’s a proven connection between physical and mental health. Because of this, a big change in a person’s physical wellbeing can cause their OCD to worsen. These changes could include a lack of sleep, not getting enough exercise, or not eating enough.

Engaging in Compulsions

When people with OCD let themselves engage in the cycle of obsessions and compulsions, it can have a negative impact on their condition, causing thoughts and behaviors to become more dramatic over time.

Important Life Events

When a big change happens in our lives, it causes a lot of stress. This is true even of changes that are positive in nature, such as getting married, moving house, or starting a new job. Stress is one of the most common causes of OCD symptoms worsening.

New Trauma

For those who are already living with OCD, experiencing a traumatic event can cause their condition to become even more severe than before. An example of this is being involved in a car accident, which causes the person to develop new obsessions and compulsions.

Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions It’s quite common for obsessive compulsive disorder to occur alongside other mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. When those conditions don’t get properly treated, it can cause an individual’s OCD to get worse.

[i] International OCD Foundation. What Causes OCD? https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/what-causes-ocd/

Some days are better than others when living with obsessive compulsive disorder. The severity of symptoms can change very quickly, which can be a very distressing experience for people with OCD. Understanding how OCD triggers and flare-ups work can make OCD a little easier to manage.

What Is an OCD Trigger?

For a person living with OCD, a trigger is a situation or environment that suddenly sets off an intrusive thought, image, or urge – which we have previously learned can be classified as obsessions. That obsession then causes a response in the form of a compulsion, and so the OCD cycle begins again.

A OCD trigger can come in many forms because they are based on an individual’s personal experiences. A trigger can be anything that sets off an obsession  - perhaps a specific situation, stimulus, or thought. OCD triggers can be either external in nature (something a person experiences around them) or internal (a body sensation).

For many people with OCD, triggers happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Because of this, they can be very overwhelming and difficult to cope with. But by learning to recognize triggers, people can work towards creating strategies for making them easier to handle.

What is an OCD Flare-Up?

When a person with OCD is triggered, it results in a flare-up – a significant increase in the intensity of OCD symptoms. In an OCD flare-up, an individual will suddenly be met with an uncontrollable thought or urge, which quickly leads to intense anxiety. The anxiety can become so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to focus on anything else.

In order to temporarily alleviate this anxiety or distress, a person with OCD will often respond to the obsession with a compulsive behavior. During an OCD flare-up, it can seem virtually impossible to resist the compulsion. In addition, the compulsive behavior might become more intense or more time-consuming than normal.

What Does an OCD Flare-Up Feel Like?

When a person experiences an OCD flare-up, they often have a sudden, intense rush of negative emotions such as fear, disgust, or sadness. Intrusive thoughts start to occur, and tend to have a more distressing effect than normal. Many people with OCD will feel an urgent need to escape the situation they’re in.

While an OCD flare-up is happening, a person with OCD may have difficulty distinguishing between reality and their obsessions. The urge to engage in compulsions will often become too intense to ignore. This can make it nearly impossible to function or to carry out day-to-day tasks.

Having an OCD flare-up can feel extremely discouraging, making a person question whether any progress they’ve made with managing their condition this far was in vain.

Common OCD Triggers

There are many different kinds of OCD triggers, depending on a person’s unique personality, life history, and specific symptoms. What triggers one person will not trigger another, making OCD triggers extremely varied by nature.

OCD triggers are often categorized into three types: environmental, emotional, and physical triggers. Let’s explore the characteristics of each type.

Environmental Triggers

This type of trigger is when external factors cause a person with OCD to experience obsessive thoughts. These outside influences could include encountering a dirty environment, coming across specific patterns, or spending time in places that evoke difficult memories.

One example of an environmental trigger is a person with contamination OCD experiencing a person sneezing nearby them. The trigger may lead to an obsession about germs, causing the person to behave compulsively by excessively washing their hands.

Emotional Triggers

In contrast to environmental triggers, emotional triggers are internal factors that result in obsessive thoughts. Strong negative emotions such as guilt, sadness, or anger can become powerful triggers for people with OCD. Similarly, OCD and anxiety often go hand-in-hand.

An example of an emotional trigger is when a person with OCD becomes overly stressed, causing them to have obsessive thoughts which in turn results in them behaving in repetitive, compulsive ways.

Physical Triggers

Sometimes a person with OCD will experience a physical sensation that activates an obsession and compulsive behavior. This could be related to any of the five senses, including smelling an odor or feeling a texture.

An example of a physical trigger is a person with OCD noticing that their eyes feel dry, causing them to have obsessive thoughts that you might go blind from eye damage. This could lead to a compulsive behavior of blinking excessively.

How Long Does an OCD Flare-Up Last?

The duration of an OCD flare-up can differ greatly. For some people, a flare-up could last only a few hours, whereas for others, a flare-up could affect them for weeks. There are a few factors that determine how long an OCD flare-up will last.

Severity of OCD symptoms: In more severe OCD examples where symptoms are normally very intense, flare-ups may last much longer and be more difficult to manage.

Access to treatment: The duration of a flare-up can depend on whether a person with OCD is receiving proper treatment from mental health professionals such as therapists or psychiatrists.

Coping strategies: People who have OCD and have developed effective coping strategies will often have shorter flare-ups. This could include mindfulness or relaxation techniques.

It’s important to recognize that flare-ups are a normal part of having OCD. With the right support and treatment, in addition to coping strategies, a person with OCD can work towards managing the disorder so that it has a less negative impact on their life.

7 Effective Ways To Manage OCD Triggers

You may have learned to manage your OCD effectively to reduce the negative impact it has on your day-to-day life, but it’s important to understand that setbacks are inevitable. By developing coping strategies for times when you’re triggered, you’ll get better and better at recognizing and managing flare-ups in the future.

Here are 7 proven tips for managing OCD triggers.

1. Learn Your Triggers

The first step in learning to manage OCD triggers is recognizing situations in which you are commonly triggered. No one can tell you what your triggers are – you have to identify them yourself. Keep a journal of your flare-ups to discover patterns and determine what may have triggered you.

2. Face Your Triggers

While it may be very tempting to escape from or avoid triggers entirely, this can actually result in future triggers affecting you more intensely. This is because avoiding your triggers often causes irrational fears to increase.

3. Practice Grounding Yourself

As we’ve discussed already, OCD triggers can cause you to feel disorientated and out of touch with reality. Grounding techniques such as tuning into your senses or spending time with a pet can help restore your awareness and distract you from fears and worries.

4. Breathe

It may sound too simple to be true, but the act of breathing properly can significantly reduce stress and empower you to manage OCD triggers more effectively. There are a variety of breathwork techniques that you can try – see which one works best for you.

5. Practice Self-Care

Look after yourself with care and compassion, like you would look after a person who you love. Feed yourself nourishing meals, get a good night’s sleep, and move your body. These healthy habits will help you find balance in your daily life.

6. Pace Yourself

Plan around events that could end up being stressful to you so that you can pace them out to make them more manageable. If you’re working on a big project in the office, practice doing a little each day rather than trying to get it all done when you’re close to the deadline.

7. Reach Out For Support

You don’t have to isolate and manage OCD alone. Contact friends or family and let them know you could use their support with issues that seem too challenging to handle alone. Reaching out to a mental health professional could start a new chapter in your ability to manage OCD.

Treating obsessive compulsive disorder may not cure it, but it can lessen the intensity and frequency of symptoms so that you can concentrate on living your life. The two recommended treatments for OCD are psychotherapy and medicine, with a combination of both often being used.

Can Medication Help My OCD?

According to the International OCD Foundation, people with OCD who benefit from medication usually notice a 40 – 60% reduction in symptoms[i]. In order for medication to work, it’s vital to take it regularly and ask directed by the prescribing doctor. If you experience side effects, let your doctor know rather than discontinuing your medication.

It’s also important to understand that medication shouldn’t be only taken when you’re stressed. OCD medicine is intended to keep you at a stable, constant level of symptom management, so be careful not to miss doses.

What Kind of Medication May Help OCD?

Research has found that the most effective medications for obsessive compulsive disorder treatment are a type called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRI). These drugs are normally used to treat depression but have also been found to be effective for treating OCD.

SRIs work by affecting serotonin, an important chemical in your brain that acts as a messenger. Having too little serotonin may keep your brain’s nerves from communicating effectively. SRIs help boost serotonin levels to restore balance.

[i] International OCD Foundation. Medications for OCD. https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/treatment/meds/

It is widely believed that combining medication with psychotherapy is the most effective way to treat the symptoms of OCD. A specific type of therapy is the treatment of choice for obsessive compulsive disorder: a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on helping individuals change thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that aren’t serving them well. CBT consists of two techniques: exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) and cognitive therapy (CT).

How Can Cognitive Therapy Help OCD?

Cognitive therapy allows an individual to look at their negative thoughts in a removed way, take all evidence into consideration, and replace the original thoughts with more helpful and realistic thoughts.

How Can Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy Help OCD?

ERP encourages people with OCD to practice confronting the thoughts, objects, and situations that normally trigger an obsessive response. Under the expert guidance of a mental health trained therapist, ERP also teaches the patient how to choose not to behave compulsively in response to an obsession.

Here at Cogniful, we are revolutionizing the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder by combining cutting-edge technology, evidence-based interventions, and highly personalized care plans. We focus on providing an entirely holistic approach to mental health that goes above and beyond traditional forms of OCD therapy.

With the use of our virtual therapeutic communities, we provide affordable and personalized help for those living with OCD while giving them access to a supportive, understanding community. By connecting with both peers and trained professionals, people with OCD can be empowered to effectively manage the symptoms of this disorder.