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What Does a Life With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Look Like?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often misrepresented in TV and movies as a proclivity for neatness and order. This oversimplification may seem harmless, but it can have a profound effect on people who actually struggle with the disorder. Understanding the true nature of the condition is a great first step in living a full, healthy life.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

OCD is a mental health disorder characterized by persistent, distressing obsessions and compulsions. It is a complex disorder that isn’t fully understood. Obsessions are uncontrollable and lead to compulsive behaviors. Despite offering temporary relief, compulsions provide no true solution and can disrupt daily life. OCD ranges in severity, but it can significantly impact a person’s well-being, relationships, and daily functioning.

Signs and Symptoms

In order to understand the signs and symptoms of OCD, you must first understand the difference between obsessions and compulsions. These are the two main parts of the disorder that interact to create the tell-tale behaviors of OCD.

Obsessions take place internally. They are thought patterns, mental images, or urges that are repeated and persistent. The presence of these thoughts causes anxiety and is often very distressing to the person. They may fear that the thoughts are a reflection of their character, which can lead to self-hatred. Because of the nature of these thoughts, people with OCD often try to repress them; however, repression usually makes the obsessions more persistent, more extreme, and more distressing.

Obsessions are unique to each person. There are no specific obsessions needed to meet the criteria of OCD. Some examples of possible obsessions are:

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Thoughts and urges surrounding taboo topics (i.e., sex, harming yourself and others)
  • Wanting things to be symmetrical or in a certain order
  • Doubting that you locked your door, even after checking multiple times
  • Thoughts of shouting obscenities in public

It’s important to note that just because you have the urge or the thought to do something, such as shouting an obscenity, that doesn’t mean that you will do it. Obsessions center around the fear that the thought may lead to performing the action, but this usually isn’t the case.

Compulsions are external behaviors. They are rituals or actions that are done in response to obsessive thoughts. The behavior may be an attempt to avoid acting out an urge. For example, if you have an obsessive urge to jump into oncoming traffic, you may feel compelled to walk far from the curb in order to avoid it. This is an example of a fairly logical compulsion, but sometimes compulsions are very irrational. For example, someone may knock three times on all surfaces they touch in order to make sure the surface doesn’t “contaminate” them. This is obviously not very logical. However, to that person, the compulsion is still necessary and real.

Examples of common compulsions include:

  • Washing hands very frequently, sometimes to the point of skin damage
  • Repeating a word or phrase out loud or in your head
  • Counting in specific patterns
  • Checking the stove repeatedly to make sure it’s off
  • Arranging items in a particular way

It’s important to remember that these behaviors are done in response to a thought or urge. They aren’t random, and they are just particularities. People with OCD perform these behaviors because they think the behavior will prevent a bad thing from happening or assure that a good thing will happen.

That may sound irrational or even crazy, but people with OCD are as sane as anyone else. Often, they are even aware that their obsessions and compulsions are illogical. It is the mental disorder that makes the thoughts and behaviors nearly uncontrollable.

Risk Factors for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

While the exact cause of OCD is unknown, there are three major risk factors for developing it: genetics, brain structure, and childhood trauma.


Genetic studies have shown that there is a significant genetic factor for OCD. If you have an immediate family member (parent or sibling) with OCD, you are at a higher risk of developing the disorder. The risk is even higher if your family member started showing symptoms in childhood or adolescence. However, the inheritance pattern varies from family to family. Some people with OCD have no family members with the disorder.

Brain Structure

Though the connection is still unclear, some research suggests a connection between brain structure and OCD. Abnormalities in the frontal cortex and subcortical structures have frequently been found in individuals with OCD. Research is still underway to understand the role that brain structure plays in the development of the disorder.

Childhood Trauma

The third risk factor is childhood trauma. Some studies suggest that in cases of childhood abuse and neglect, higher rates of OCD can be observed. The reason behind this is unclear. Traumatic events could cause a physical or chemical change in the brain that leads to OCD down the road. In other cases, obsessions and compulsions may develop as coping mechanisms in response to trauma.

Major Obstacles With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

People with OCD may face many obstacles in daily life and in reaching long-term goals. The difficulties of living with this disorder can touch every part of a person’s life.

  • Impaired daily functioning: OCD significantly impairs an individual’s ability to carry out even the most basic daily tasks. Take, for example, someone with contamination obsessions. Their fear of germs may lead to extensive handwashing, making simple activities like preparing food or touching everyday objects a monumental challenge. The need to perform rituals before leaving the house or going to bed can disrupt sleep patterns and create a constant sense of urgency.
  • Social Isolation: The relentless nature of OCD can lead to social isolation. People with OCD may avoid social gatherings or interactions because they fear triggering their obsessions or compulsions in front of others. This avoidance can lead to loneliness and a deep sense of alienation as maintaining relationships becomes increasingly difficult.
  • Impact on relationships: OCD can strain relationships to the breaking point. Friends and family members may struggle to understand why their loved one can’t simply stop their rituals or obsessions. The frustration and fatigue that can result from trying to accommodate these behaviors can lead to strained relationships, creating a cycle of isolation and distress.
  • Work and academic challenges: The demands of OCD can interfere with an individual’s ability to meet their responsibilities at work or in school. Those with OCD may find it challenging to concentrate, make decisions, or complete tasks on time. This can lead to decreased productivity, job loss, academic underachievement, and missed opportunities.
  • Financial burden: Seeking treatment for OCD often incurs substantial financial costs. Therapy sessions, medications, and hospitalizations can add up quickly. These expenses can lead to financial hardship, especially for individuals without comprehensive health insurance. The burden of these costs can exacerbate stress and anxiety, further hindering recovery.
  • Stigmatization: The stigma surrounding mental health issues, including OCD, can be a significant obstacle. People with OCD may face judgment, skepticism, or insensitive comments from those who do not comprehend the complexities of the disorder. This lack of understanding can intensify feelings of shame and isolation.

How Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Misrepresented in the Media?

OCD is often misrepresented in movies and TV shows. There are two main ways this happens. One is that OCD is conflated with other issues or personality quirks such as perfectionism, germ phobias, or just liking things to be neat. You’ll often see a character tidying up a space that the other characters think is clean enough. The character might say something like, “Sorry, I’m just a little OCD.” Having a preference for neat and tidy spaces is not a case of OCD. Similarly, being a perfectionist about work or school does not mean you have OCD.

Cases of OCD are sometimes shown as people who avoid germs at all costs. They might wear gloves and a mask constantly or carry disinfecting wipes everywhere they go. While a fear of germs can be an obsessive thought in some OCD cases, and they may perform those behaviors to avoid it, this might be a better representation of a germ phobia. Showing characters with OCD to all be obsessed with germs is a misrepresentation of the disorder, which varies widely in manifestation.

Another common issue with OCD in media is that it is usually only shown in its most severe form. The characters are almost always extremely debilitated by the disorder, to the point where it consumes every moment of their lives. In many depictions, it prevents them from living happy, functional lives. Extreme cases like this do happen in real life. However, it is more common to have a mild to moderate case of OCD. In these instances, symptoms are manageable with professional help. For more extreme cases, extensive therapy and medication may be necessary to cope with the disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Women

OCD affects men and women at a similar rate, but there are some aspects that are unique in women. First and foremost, the age of onset is typically later in women. While men start to show symptoms in childhood or early adolescence, women usually don’t develop signs until late adolescence or young adulthood. The reason for this is unclear, though it may be connected to hormonal changes.

Specific obsessions and compulsions can vary between genders. Women with OCD are more likely to experience obsessions related to cleanliness, contamination fears, and fears of harming others, while men tend to have more obsessions centered around symmetry and order. This divergence in obsession themes might be linked to societal expectations and gender roles. It’s important to note that these are generalizations, and they do not apply in every case.

Women with OCD are more likely to have comorbid conditions. Comorbid conditions are disorders that occur at the same time and often feed into each other. Women with OCD often have other conditions, such as eating disorders and anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder. The presence of these additional conditions can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of OCD in women.

Getting Treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Treatment for OCD typically involves a combination of therapeutic approaches and, in some cases, medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), particularly exposure and response prevention (ERP), is widely regarded as the most effective psychotherapy for OCD. ERP involves gradual exposure to obsessive triggers while refraining from compulsive behaviors. This helps reduce anxiety linked to obsessions and diminishes the compulsion to engage in ritualistic behaviors. Medication, such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), like fluoxetine or sertraline, can be prescribed to manage severe symptoms, often complementing therapy.

Many individuals benefit from a combined approach, which addresses both psychological and biological aspects of the disorder. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques, like meditation and deep breathing exercises, can also help manage OCD symptoms by promoting staying in the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment. Support groups offer a sense of community and understanding for individuals with OCD, allowing them to share experiences and coping strategies. Family therapy may be valuable in helping loved ones understand the disorder and improve family dynamics.

It’s essential to remember that OCD treatment plans should be personalized to meet individual needs, and the choice of treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and individual response. Regular monitoring and adjustments to the treatment plan by qualified mental health professionals are critical for achieving the best outcomes in managing OCD. Early intervention is also crucial in preventing the progression of OCD and improving long-term prognosis.

All of these treatment options and more are available to you at Avery Lane. We understand the importance of having agency in your treatment journey, which is why we offer a variety of modalities.

Building Coping Skills

In addition to getting professional help, developing coping skills can be a big step in learning to live and thrive with the disorder. Coping with OCD is a unique journey for each individual. What works best may vary, but a combination of professional treatment, self-help strategies, and a supportive network can significantly improve the quality of life for people with OCD.

Here are ten helpful coping skills for people with OCD:

  • Educate yourself: Understanding OCD is a powerful coping skill. Knowing that your thoughts and behaviors are a part of the disorder, not your true self, can reduce guilt and anxiety. Learn about the science of OCD and its treatment options to demystify the condition.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing, can help individuals with OCD manage their anxiety and intrusive thoughts. By staying in the present moment, they can learn to detach from their obsessions and reduce the urge to perform compulsions.
  • Set realistic goals: Coping with OCD is a gradual process. Setting realistic goals for treatment and recovery is essential. Small, achievable steps can make the journey less overwhelming and more manageable.
  • Build a support system: Sharing your struggles with trusted friends and family members can provide emotional support and understanding. They can also help you stay accountable for your treatment goals and offer encouragement.
  • Keep a journal: Keeping a journal can be a valuable tool in coping with OCD. Write down your obsessions and compulsions, as well as the emotions and situations that trigger them. This can help identify patterns and triggers, making it easier to address them.
  • Challenge negative thoughts: Cognitive distortions often accompany OCD. Learning to recognize and challenge these negative thoughts can be empowering. Therapists often help individuals reframe their thought patterns to reduce anxiety and compulsions.
  • Create a routine: Establishing a daily routine can provide structure and stability, which can be especially helpful for people with OCD. Having a predictable schedule can reduce uncertainty and anxiety.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help manage OCD symptoms. Consult with a psychiatrist to determine if medication is a suitable option for your treatment plan. If you are prescribed medication, make sure you take it exactly as directed for best results.
  • Self-care: Prioritize self-care activities that promote physical and emotional well-being. This includes exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and engaging in hobbies and interests that bring joy and relaxation.
  • Stay persistent: Coping with OCD can be a lifelong journey. There may be setbacks, but persistence is key. Celebrate your victories, no matter how small, and remind yourself of your progress.

Avery Lane Women’s Rehab provides a safe and empathetic space for women to heal from mental health disorders and addiction. We provide a haven for women of all ages and backgrounds to come together and get the help they need. If you struggle with a mental health disorder such as OCD, we invite you to take the first step on your healing journey with us. Feeling anxious and out of control can lead to devasting effects on your health, work, and relationships. You deserve a life free from the confines of mental health issues. With a variety of treatment options and personalized treatment plans, Avery Lane can help you get there. Reach out to us at (800) 270-2406

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