Each of us have idiosyncratic behaviors integrated into our daily routines, but these behaviors typically are not time consuming, generally, do not get in the way of our everyday lives, and do not cause clinically significant distress or impairment. For some people, these actions have crossed over from normal functioning to maladaptive and restrictive behaviors. The term OCD is often thrown around in casual conversation to refer to someone who is simply overly detailed. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, however, has clear indicators demarking the difference between simple perfectionism and disordered thinking or behavior.
So, how do you know if certain behaviors are just normal habits of if they could be a sign of something more serious? If you have concerns, here are a few signs and symptoms that could help you identify potentially problematic thoughts and behaviors.
Identifying Intrusive or Unwanted Thoughts (Obsessions)
The first step is to identify if you are experiencing any recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images. These types of thoughts are often centered around specific ideas and do not easily go away despite repeated attempts to ignore or suppress them. Here are some of the most common topics that are associated with obsessive thinking:
- Fear of contaminating others or being contaminated.
- Unwanted taboo thoughts related to sex, religion, or other topics.
- Aggressive thoughts about harm coming to yourself or others.
- Need to create symmetry or perfect order.
These recurrent obsessive ideas often lead to actions that attempt reducing the anxiety related to the thoughts. While anyone can have intrusive or unwanted thoughts from time to time, those experiencing obsessive thoughts will ruminate on these ideas in such a way that prevents them for thinking or doing anything else.
Identifying Irrepressible Behaviors (Compulsions)
Once you’ve identified intrusive thoughts, the next step is to consider whether these thoughts lead to unhealthy repetitive behaviors. Habits can help our minds order our actions or structure our day in a helpful way, but they should not control our behavior in a restrictive and damaging way. Here are some key actions that are associated with compulsive actions:
- Excessive cleaning or washing of a body part, such as hands.
- Strict ordering or arranging in a particular way.
- Repeated checking, such as making sure the front door is locked.
- Compulsive counting of items or tasks.
- Constantly seeking reassurance from friends or family members.
By themselves, some of these behaviors are not harmful. However, when associated with OCD, these behaviors can become uncontrollable and as previously mentioned, they are often connected to associated obsessive thoughts. Frequency and intensity are good indicators of whether certain behaviors are compulsions rather than everyday habits. Furthermore, these acts may be excessive or are not realistically connected to the thoughts they aim to reduce.
Identifying If You’ve Crossed the Line
If you’ve identified problematic thoughts or behaviors, it’s good to evaluate how much these thoughts and behaviors have been impacting your everyday life. Here are some key indicators that obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors are holding you back:
- You feel like you can’t control the thoughts or behaviors, even if you know they are excessive.
- You spend more than 1 hour each day ruminating on the thoughts or performing the behaviors.
- You’ve experienced significant barriers to enjoying everyday activities due to the thoughts or behaviors.
While this list is not comprehensive, it can be a helpful tool to consider whether your habits of thought and behavior could really be symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you are not sure, your friends and family can also be a helpful gauge of how much these symptoms are impacting your life.
Risk Factors and Specific Intervention
Finally, it is important to be aware of the risk factors that contribute to developing OCD. These factors include:
- Childhood abuse, stressful experiences, or traumatic events
- Family history of OCD
- Earlier onset for males, but equally common in adult males and females
There are helpful therapeutic and medication strategies available for those diagnosed with OCD. One common therapeutic intervention is Exposure with Response Prevention. This intervention utilizes thought stopping or other techniques that aim at addressing obsessions once exposed to them initially in a controlled therapeutic setting.
Take the Next Step
If you are concerned that you might be exhibiting symptoms of OCD, please get in touch with one of LifeStance Health’s experts to find out more about your options, such as counseling for therapeutic interventions, psychological testing for in-depth accurate diagnosis, and psychiatric services for medication management. We are here to help you overcome the intrusive and unwanted thoughts and the compulsive behaviors that are holding you back in your everyday life.