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OCD symptoms: the obvious (and the not so obvious)


Although some OCD symptoms are more common, other symptoms can be quite idiosyncratic and often go undetected by inexperienced psychologists.

Symptoms of OCD are everywhere.

Turn on your television, and you’re likely to catch at least a fleeting glimpse of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Many popular TV shows feature characters with OCD (e.g., Emma on Glee, Monk), and it is through this lens that many members of the general population get their first exposure to OCD. Unfortunately, if your understanding of OCD is based solely on depictions in the popular media, you are likely to have a relatively limited (and perhaps, warped) sense of what OCD really is.

The truth is that OCD symptoms can manifest in many different ways. Although some symptoms are more common (e.g., a fear about about germs or getting sick), other symptoms can be quite idiosyncratic and often go undetected by inexperienced psychologists. The unfortunate consequence of this is that many people with OCD don’t know that they have OCD. Instead of recognizing their symptoms as being related to OCD, they blame themselves for their symptoms. They think that the reason they have scary or unacceptable thoughts is because they are not as “good” or as “moral” as they should be. This could not be further from the truth. In my work as a clinical psychologist, I have learned that most individuals with OCD are exactly the types of people that you would want as friends or family members. They are good, honest, hardworking people who are bombarded by near constant thoughts that are unwanted and horrifying. These thoughts often prevent them from living the lives they so desperately want for themselves and for their families. There is nothing more rewarding as a therapist than helping these individuals fight their OCD and reclaim their lives as their own.

Below, I have included some categories of symptoms associated with OCD. Some of these OCD symptoms are common, whereas others are more unusual. If you or a loved one have any of these symptoms and they are affecting your quality of life, please consider consulting with a psychologist experienced in treating OCD. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a highly effective treatment for OCD, and it can help you reclaim the life you deserve.

Symptoms of OCD


Cleaning/Washing OCD Symptoms


  • Excessive or ritualized handwashing
  • Excessive or ritualized showering, bathing, toothbrushing grooming, or toilet routine
  • Involves cleaning of household items or other inanimate objects
  • Other measures to prevent or remove contact with contaminants

Checking Symptoms of OCD

Repeating Rituals

  • Rereading or rewriting
  • Need to repeat routine activities (in/out door, up/down from chair)

Counting Compulsions

Ordering/Arranging Compulsions

Hoarding/Collecting Compulsions

Miscellaneous OCD Symptoms

  • Mental rituals (other than checking/counting)
  • Excessive listmaking
  • Need to tell, ask, or confess
  • Need to touch, tap, or rub
  • Rituals involving blinking or staring
  • Measures (not checking) to prevent: harm to self, harm to others, terrible consequences
  • Ritualized eating behaviors
  • Superstitious behaviors
  • Trichotillomania
  • Other self-damaging or self-mutilating behaviors

Somatic Symptoms of OCD

  • Concern with illness or disease
  • Excessive concern with body part or aspect of appearance (eg., dysmorphophobia)

Aggressive OCD Symptoms

Sexual Symptoms of OCD

  • Forbidden or perverse sexual thoughts, images, or impulses
  • Content involves children or incest
  • Content involves homosexuality
  • Sexual behavior towards others (Aggressive)

Hoarding/Saving Obsessions

Religious Obsessions & Scrupulosity

Obsession with a Need for Symmetry or Exactness

  • Accompanied by magical thinking (e.g., concerned that another will have accident unless things are in the right place)
  • Not accompanied by magical thinking

Miscellaneous Obsessions

  • Need to know or remember
  • Fear of saying certain things
  • Fear of not saying just the right thing
  • Fear of losing things
  • Intrusive (nonviolent) images
  • Intrusive nonsense sounds, words, or music
  • Bothered by certain sounds/noises
  • Lucky/unlucky numbers
  • Colors with special significance
  • Superstitious fears

Contamination Obsessions in OCD

  • Concerns or disgust with with bodily waste or secretions (e.g., urine, feces, saliva)
  • Concern with dirt or germs
  • Excessive concern with environmental contaminants (e.g. asbestos, radiation toxic waste)
  • Excessive concern with household items (e.g., cleansers solvents)
  • Excessive concern with animals (e.g., insects)
  • Bothered by sticky substances or residues
  • Concerned will get ill because of contaminant
  • Concerned will get others ill by spreading contaminant
  • No concern with consequences of contamination other than how it might feel

OCD symptoms adapted from the Y-BOCS developed by Goodman, W.K., Price, L.H., Rasmussen, S.A. et al.: “The Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 46:1006-1011,1989.

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  1. Do you think I have OCD..?
    Here a few things I have collects over a month or so.
    Everything has to be symmetrical and perfect and I just can’t handle it if it is not. I have to split my food and drink in half in my mouth so there is equal amounts on both sides and if I don’t I think something bad will happen. If I tap my finger I have to do it 12 times with one finger then 12 with the next. I have to have the tv volume on 27. If there is something like smudges on a whiteboard I have to wipe it off and all the letters have to be formed and spelt correctly. I make lists and schedules for everything and if everything doesn’t go exactly to plan I think something bad will happen. I have to clean my door handle at least 4 times and if I clean one side I have to do the other. I can’t leave the house without my iPod and hand sanitizer and I check heaps of times before I can leave. Scary images of like horror movies stay sketched in my mind and I can’t sleep until I check all the doors and curtains are shut fully. I have to have 4 blankets on my bed or I can’t sleep. If I cough I have to do it four times. I plan what I’m going to say. I have to have my heart going a certain pace before I sleep. If people are watching me and I’m concentrating I have to blink 4 times.

  2. My SO Jack has overwhelming guilt feelings about God being angry at him because he and his ex have divorced. He “believes” that God doesn’t see him as divorced, since he made “vows” to God when they were married. He says God would want him to go back with his ex out of obligation and because he feels responsible, as he left his difficult and stagnating relationship to pursue a relationship with me. He was honest with her, paid ALL of her bills, made a HUGELY generous settlement, permanent maintenance for life, and is cordial to her. She was the one who filed and pushed the divorce through. They have grown children, boys (men) who left the house ten years ago. It has been three years and we keep circling between Jack wanting to get married to me, and Jack saying he can never have a future with me because “we did not start off the right way, and God wants him to either put his former marriage together, or have him just live alone so he can be righteous with God.” He shows signs of OCD and fears loss of control in many aspects of his life. He becomes irrational and shuts down if I try to be rational with him. I tell him he is forgiven by God, but he feels only if he “gives me up” (even though he loves me and wants to be with me), that only then can he be forgiven. His former marriage is dead, and she has not even mentioned missing him or loving him throughout this whole ordeal. I am at a loss as of how to help him, or if maybe I can’t help, even though I would like to. I love him, and don’t want to see him hurting; and in the process, I am also being hurt by his “beliefs” and “rigidity” as he makes himself feel some relief by ostracizing me, then showing back up days or weeks later, as if he did nothing hurtful or damaging to our relationship. Can he be helped?

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