OCD is not just about keeping your bedroom super clean or arranging your vinyl collection in alphabetical order as might be suggested by some popular TV shows!

OCD is often trivialised in the media and it is not uncommon to hear people describe themselves as a bit ‘OCD’. In reality OCD refers to a serious and complex illness called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which causes symptoms that can be very distressing and have a big impact on people’s everyday lives.

People with OCD experience intrusive and frightening thoughts, feelings and images that repeat over and over again – these are called ‘obsessions’. They may also experience ‘compulsions’ – these are actions or rituals that people feel they need to carry out in order to relieve the anxiety caused by the thoughts, or to prevent the ‘bad thing’ in their thought from happening.

Obsessive or intrusive thoughts are often related to germs, dirt or disease, bad things happening to yourself or to your loved ones, or worries around religion or sexuality. Common compulsions include repeated handwashing, constant checking – that the door is locked for example, or counting or repeating a phrase over and over.

Many children and young people have mild obsessions and rituals, this is normal and is often a temporary reaction to stress, change or uncertainty in their lives. If these thoughts or behaviours start to cause distress or interfere with or disrupt daily life – school, friendships, hobbies, family activities– then it may be a sign that OCD is developing and you should talk to your GP/family doctor, school nurse or counsellor or someone else who can help you find specialist mental health support if this is needed.

OCD is a treatable condition and doesn’t mean you are weak, crazy or weird. It can affect anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or background, at any time. Several successful celebrities, sports stars and politicians have spoken out about their own struggles with OCD in recent years.

What causes OCD?

Some experts believe there is a genetic element to OCD, and it may run in families, others feel the symptoms are related to environmental causes or are the result of an anxious personality; some believe a chemical imbalance in the brain’s serotonin levels is to blame. The truth is we don’t really know what causes OCD and it is likely to be a combination of factors.

OCD symptoms are often triggered by or get worse when people are under stress or experiencing difficult events in their lives – such as losing a loved one, family break up, being in an accident, being under a lot of pressure at work or school, or being bullied.

How do I know if I have OCD?

People with OCD experience a range of repetitive ‘obsessions’ – thoughts, feelings and images that they can’t get out of their head and that make them feel distressed or frightened.

Common obsessions include:

  • Fears about dirt, germs, contamination or catching or spreading disease
  • Worries about bad things happening to yourself or people close to you
  • Fears you will harm someone else or commit a crime – without having any desire or intention to do so
  • Unwanted sexual or violent thoughts and feelings
  • Worries and beliefs related to religion or sexuality

It is important to note that these thoughts are not based in reality and people with OCD generally do not act on their thoughts about harming others for example.

These ‘obsessions’ cause people a lot of stress and anxiety – and in order to relive this they may feel a need to carry out repeated actions or rituals called ‘compulsions’.

Common compulsions include:

  • Repeated handwashing or cleaning – often until the skin is raw
  • Performing a task over and over again
  • Repeated checking – that doors are locked, the oven or electrical appliances are turned off for example
  • Counting or saying things under the breath
  • Having to perform a physical act such as swallowing or clearing the throat for a set number of times
  • Avoiding places or events or routes
  • Seeking reassurance from others

People carry out compulsions in order to relieve their anxiety or to ‘neutralise’ their obsessions – prevent them from coming true. However, the relief is only temporary and soon the cycle of thoughts and compulsions starts over again, over time people feel they need to repeat their compulsions more and more to find relief.

These cycles can start to take over people’s lives, disrupting school, work, hobbies, friendships and relationships and some people with OCD become depressed. People might also experience feelings of shame, guilt, disgust and self -hate, they may self-harm or have thoughts of suicide.

If you are worried that you may have symptoms of OCD it is important to talk to someone you trust and to find professional help if needed. Remember OCD is a treatable condition and many people are able to learn to manage their symptoms and go on to lead a normal life.

For more information about the symptoms of OCD see OCD UK

Talking to someone about how you are feeling is the most important thing. This could be a parent, family member or friend, a teacher, school nurse, youth worker, counsellor, your doctor or an online service such as Kooth.com.  These people will be able to help you access specialist mental health services if they feel you may have symptoms of OCD.

A diagnosis of OCD is normally made by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist or nurse. If you are diagnosed with OCD you may be offered a talking therapy such as CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). This will help you to understand the illness and to begin to break the OCD cycle and take control – by learning strategies to face your anxieties and resist the compulsions for example. Your therapist will support you to do this at your own pace, they may also involve your family or friends/carers so that they can learn how to help you to start managing your symptoms at home.

You might be offered medication in combination with therapy, for some people this is the most effective treatment. Medication for OCD is normally an anti-depressant which boosts levels of serotonin in the brain. You can find out more about medication for OCD on the Headmeds site.

Self help strategies such as reducing stress, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, avoiding drugs and alcohol and using mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help you to manage OCD and reduce the risk of relapses.

Talking to other young people who have had similar experiences can also be helpful, try the OCD Youth site to connect with others and hear some real life stories, or try joining forums on kooth.com or The Mix 

Myth buster #1

Myth: People with OCD wash their hands all the time and are ‘germophobes’.
Fact: Compulsive hand washing is only one type of OCD symptom and only about a quarter of people with OCD have it. There are many other less visible symptoms that cause great distress, for example believing you may have run over someone without realising it, or believing you have to count to a certain number to stop something terrible from happening.

Myth buster #2

Myth: It’s OK to joke about OCD
Fact: OCD is a serious illness and there’s nothing funny about the distress, anxiety or fear that OCD causes. Trivialising the symptoms can make people reluctant to ask for help.

Myth buster #3

Myth: Everyone is a bit OCD
Fact: Lots of people say they are OCD when really they mean they like to keep things clean and organised. In reality OCD is a serious and very distressing illness – people with OCD might have cleanliness rituals but they don’t enjoy them, they do it to relieve frightening thoughts and feelings of anxiety. Someone who scrubs their hands may be doing so because they truly believe that if they fail to wash them properly they will catch or pass on an illness that will kill those that they love.

Useful resources

OCD Youth

Connect with other young people through real life stories, blogs and forums


Download this guide to OCD written for young people


Detailed information from  the Royal College of Psychiatrists

Need help now?

If you need to speak to someone urgently call your GP or family doctor!


Childline up to 19yrs : 0800 1111
The Samaritans: 116 123 In an emergency go to A&E or call 999

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