What is OCD?

By Cara Waudby Tolley | May 24, 2022

What is OCD and how do you know if you have it? Gemma Blueitt from OCD UK reveals the facts about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how best to go about treating it.

A woman talks to a therapist about OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition affecting approximately 1.2% of the UK population. OCD commonly begins in early adulthood, but can affect children as young as five years old.

What is OCD?

OCD is characterised by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent persistent thoughts, urges, images, or doubts that are experienced as unwanted and cause great distress to the individual. That distress may be anxiety, fear, disgust, or a combination of them all.

Obsessions come in many varieties and often focus on what is important to the individual. For instance, a caring father may have worries about harm coming to his children, a highly religious person may have blasphemous thoughts, or a diligent student may worry about making mistakes. What most people don’t realise is that everyone gets thoughts like these, but those with OCD place a higher significance on the thought happening and therefore take action.

OCD obsessions can also change over time, as different things become important to a person, which makes it a particularly complex problem. Compulsions are what people on the whole associate with OCD and are actions that are intended to get rid of the anxiety and end the worry or doubt caused by the obsession.

Compulsions are again incredibly varied and include checking, cleaning, ordering, thought blocking, thinking things over and over, counting, asking for reassurance, avoidance, and many, many more. Compulsions can become so elaborate and time consuming that their affect on a person’s life can be devastating. OCD can affect a person’s ability to work, build relationships and look after themselves.

How do you know if you might have OCD?

Many people with OCD self-diagnose before they reach out to services, but because OCD is often misrepresented in the media as a problem of cleaning or ordering things, it can even go years unrecognised. Do you struggle with intrusive thoughts that bother you day to day, that you can’t get rid of? Are you taking action to alleviate stress brought on by these thoughts? Are you doing these behaviours to be 100% sure all the time or 100% safe or to ‘feel right’? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you may be experiencing OCD.

The good news about OCD

It can feel really overwhelming if you think you might have OCD, but it’s important to say that OCD is a highly treatable condition and, with the right support, you can recover from it.

A group of young people discuss OCD

What can you do if you think you have OCD?

The current recommended treatment for OCD in the UK is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT looks at the meanings someone places on their thoughts and feelings and how they can react differently to them. The goal of CBT is to help someone become their own therapist, so when thoughts or feelings come up, they have the tools to deal with them and not get stuck in the OCD cycle.

Some people with OCD also try medication, which for OCD is a type of antidepressant called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). It is absolutely a personal choice whether to try medication and there is no obligation to try it. Usually, the first step would be CBT.

In England, the first step to access CBT is your local Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service. The benefit of IAPT is that you can self-refer without speaking to your GP. Find your local IAPT service. In other areas of the UK, you will need to speak to your GP about a referral to your local community mental health team (CMHT).

If you would like to discuss medication options, you can speak to your GP, and they should be able to advise you further. It may take a little time to find an SSRI that works for you as an individual, but medication can help manage the distress OCD causes, making it easier to tackle it in CBT.

What to do if CBT doesn’t work for you

This is something as a charity we hear a lot from our service-users, so if this is your experience, please know that you are not alone. Some people see two, three, four therapists before they find one with the right expertise or approach to really help them tackle the OCD, whereas others find a therapist they can work with immediately. There is never too late a moment to tackle it. No matter how old you are, how much your life has been impacted, you can always make ground against OCD.

We know that OCD takes so much from individuals and their families and we want people to know, you deserve to feel better!

Two men hug and support each other

Getting help

  • Self-refer to your local IAPT or speak to your GP about a referral to local mental health services/ medication options.
  • Buy a self-help book to learn more about OCD and CBT.
  • For peer support, visit the OCD UK online forums.
  • Look at some of the presentations from OCD UK’s online conferences.
  • Talk to someone who you know will listen without judgement to your problems.
  • Remember that compulsions keep the problem going, so reduce them if you can (it’s OK if you can’t do this right now).
  • Be compassionate with yourself, you are trying your best.
  • Practise what self-care you can. Try to get enough sleep, food and water, so that you can keep your energy up.
  • Distract yourself. Have a nice warm bath, read a book, go for a walk, listen to some music, anything you can do that gives you a little break.

If you would like more information, visit the OCD UK website and if you have any specific questions or are struggling to access treatment for OCD, contact support@ocduk.org. You can also find support for your mental health in Planet Mindful‘s free download.

About the author

Gemma Blueitt is OCD-UK’s Support Coordinator, manages the helpline and recruits and trains volunteers to join OCD-UK’s support team.