What are obsessions and compulsions?

Obsessions are anxiety-provoking thoughts, images, doubts or impulses that pop into your mind involuntarily. They are distressing, they feel uncontrollable and they happen over and over again. Typically people spend a considerable amount of time and energy trying to ignore or suppress their obsessions. This is usually ineffective though and more often than not, actually ends up making the obsessions stronger.

Compulsions are mental rituals or behaviours that either reduce the anxiety triggered by the obsession or prevent a feared event or situation from happening. Usually the person can recognise (at least to some degree) that these mental rituals or behaviours are not actually linked to the event or situation they fear or that their response is excessive in some way.

Psychologist treating OCD in a man in therapy

How many people experience obsessions and compulsions?

It is estimated that between 1-3% of children and adults have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and around 5% of the population experience symptoms of OCD, but without the severity levels required to meet the full diagnosis.

Here are some examples of the way that obsessions and compulsions work together:

  • You have the thought that your child will become sick and die if you don’t scrub the bathroom each day (obsession), so you scrub the bathroom from top to bottom daily (compulsion)
  • You worry that something terrible will happen in the city that you live (obsessive thought) if you don’t arrange certain objects in your house in neat lines (compulsion)
  • You fear that you will suddenly begin yelling and swearing at other people in public (obsession) if you don’t repeat the words “be quiet” ten times (compulsion)

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

When a person has OCD their obsessions and compulsions take up a significant amount of their time, cause a lot of distress and/or get in the way of relationships, work or other aspects of life. To be diagnosed with OCD a person also needs to be able to recognise that the obsessions that they are experiencing are a product of their own mind.

Obsessions and compulsions can occur in the context of other mental health issues such as generalised anxiety, perfectionism, body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders and psychosis.

OCD symptoms

  • Obsessive thoughts: These can include intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses that are difficult to control or dismiss, such as fears of causing harm to someone, fear of germs or fear of something terrible happening.
  • Compulsive behaviours: These are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that are performed to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsessions. Examples are excessive cleaning or checking.
  • Avoidance: People with OCD may avoid situations or objects that trigger their obsessions or compulsions.
  • Rituals: If you have OCD you may develop rituals or routines that you feel compelled to follow, such as counting or saying the same phrases to themselves over and over.
  • Distress: OCD can cause significant distress and interfere with your capacity to function and enjoy life. The symptoms can get in the way of work, school and relationships.
  • Time-consuming: Obsessions and compulsions can take up a lot of time and may interfere with daily routines, leading to feelings of frustration, hopelessness and exhaustion.
  • Lack of control: OCD can often leave you feeling that you don’t have control over your thoughts and behaviours, which can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and depression.

OCD Treatments in Melbourne

Effective treatments for obsessions and compulsions are available.

Depending on your individual preferences and the severity of your symptoms, OCD treatment can include psychological treatments, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness, and medication.

If you think you may be experiencing obsessions and compulsions, a good starting point is chatting with your general practitioner (GP). They can tell you whether you are eligible for a Medicare rebate to see a psychologist.

We know that seeking treatment for OCD isn’t always easy, but we’ll try to make the process as smooth and comfortable as possible for you.