The Differences Between OCD Obsessions and Compulsions

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a complex and tiring disorder, which can quickly consume every aspect of one’s life. Most people have some awareness of OCD, but may be confused about the differences between obsessions and compulsions. They’re two similar, yet different, clusters of symptoms that are important to fully comprehend in order to properly recognize Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

What Are Obsessions?

Obsessions are thoughts that will not go away. They’re intrusive and often appear to be irrational to individuals not suffering from OCD. Individuals with OCD find that they are unable to ignore or distract themselves from these obsessive thoughts or ideas. The obsessions can be mild, appearing only occasionally, or they can be constant, present at all times. These thoughts can greatly impact an individual’s life.

Some example of common obsessions include:

  • Fear of dirt
  • Fear of germs or becoming sick
  • Constant thoughts of a specific numeral value
  • Having to do tasks in a certain order or way
  • Worrying about something being done “right”

While these thoughts might not seem irrational on their own, the obsessive thoughts lead to behaviors that are abnormal to people who don’t have OCD.

What Are Compulsions?

Compulsions are recurrent actions done in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety of the obsessive thoughts. For example, if someone has a fear of germs they may wash their hands multiple times, even to the point of them becoming raw. While these compulsive behaviors may make the obsessions go away for a short time, they almost always return.

Compulsions can interfere with people’s daily life. They may damage relationships, create strain at their workplace, or even cause physical harm. Some common compulsions are:

  • Washing hands/body excessively
  • Checking to see if appliances are off
  • Checking to see if doors are locked
  • Arranging objects in a certain way
  • Keeping items when they are no longer needed
  • Repeating an action a specific number of times

The Differences

The easiest way to differentiate between obsessions and compulsions are that obsessions are thoughts, while compulsions are behaviors. Obsessions lead to compulsions, which temporarily relieve the obsessions but do not remove them entirely. This creates a vicious and tiring cycle that traps people struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

While OCD is a disturbing and debilitating disorder, the good news is that OCD treatment is relatively straightforward. Some antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications can help, by correcting the chemical imbalance that contributes to OCD.  In addition, certain behavioral therapies are helpful, because they give OCD patients healthy coping skills for intrusive thoughts, to replace their unhealthy compulsions.  If you or someone you know is looking for OCD treatment options, feel free to contact us.

Dr. Raul J. Rodriguez

Dr. Raul Rodriguez


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