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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Symptoms

OCDObsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by having either obsessions or compulsions (though most individuals with the disorder have both) that are time-consuming:

Obsessions as defined by exhibiting both (1) and (2):

  1. Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals causes marked anxiety or distress (they are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems)
  2. The individual attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action (i.e., by performing a compulsion).

Compulsions as defined by exhibiting both (1) and (2):

  1. Repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.
  2. The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or distress, or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent, or are clearly excessive.

Note: Young children may not be able to articulate what their aims are in performing these behaviors or mental acts.

— AND —

  • The obsessions or compulsions cause significant distress or interfere with the person’s normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.
  • Importantly, obsessive-compulsive actions are time-consuming (take more than 1 hour a day). This criterion helps to distinguish the disorder from the occasional intrusive thoughts or repetitive behaviors that are common in the general population (e.g., double-checking that a door is locked). The frequency and severity of obsessions and compulsions vary across individuals with OCD (e.g., some have mild to moderate symptoms, spending 1–3 hours per day obsessing or doing compulsions, whereas others have nearly constant intrusive thoughts or compulsions that can be incapacitating).
  • If another disorder is present, the content of the obsessions or compulsions is not attributable to it (e.g., excessive worries, as in generalized anxiety disorder; preoccupation with appearance, as in body dysmorphic disorder). The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition.

Johnna Medina, Ph.D.

Johnna Medina, Ph.D. is an author, researcher, and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently completing her postdoctoral research fellowship at Stanford School of Medicine.

APA Reference
Medina, J. (2018). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 14, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.