Obsessions may come and go, but they don’t always mean you live with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

When you hear the term “obsession,” you may think of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People may misuse the term to describe someone who, for example, has particular preferences about organization.

But obsessions can and do occur outside of OCD diagnoses.

Before digging into obsession psychology, it’s good to remember that not every obsession needs to be thought of as a dangerous symptom of a mental health condition.

Though several mental health conditions can include obsessions as potential symptoms, people often experience obsessions outside of a mental health condition.

If you feel you have experienced obsessions, know that you can manage and treat these thoughts and find relief with the right resources.

An obsession is a recurring thought of something or someone, where it always seems to be in a person’s mind.

Obsessions may be a passing occurrence or a long-term interest, and may or may not be uncomfortable experiences.

Obsessions may often reoccur in your daily life as:

  • thoughts
  • dreams
  • urges
  • fantasies

Kevin Majeres, MD, elaborates on this definition, saying that obsessive thoughts could be disturbing or otherwise have negative connotations.

Intrusive thoughts

Obsessions may also feel a bit like intrusive thoughts — unwelcome thoughts that may feel concerning.

Most people have intrusive or unwanted thoughts from time to time. Not all intrusive or unwanted thoughts are obsessive, though.


It can be hard to distinguish between obsessions and worries. A worry tends to be something that’s within reason or that could have a possibility of happening.

Generally speaking, an obsession may take on irrational properties.

According the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.), you may be dealing with an obsession if you experience stressful thoughts or urges that cause you to try to make these thoughts go away or calm related stress.

These obsession hallmarks can relate to many of the symptoms of OCD, though having an obsession doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD.

The most significant symptoms of OCD are repetitive compulsions that result from obsessions, which may lead to repetitive cycles.

Psychologists are still debating the origins of obsessions in the human mind. However, there are a few current hypotheses on the causes of obsessions.

Many people who experience obsessions show a genetic predisposition to it. One thought is that obsessions may be something that we inherit through our DNA.

Other experts think there may be chemical differences within some peoples’ brains that might make you more likely to have obsessions.

Environmental factors may also play a role in causing obsessions, especially if you’re experiencing high levels of stress.

OCD causes

Obsessive compulsive disorder can be inherited. Other things that can trigger OCD include:

A person may experience one or more different types of obsessions.

Again, obsessions typically take on more intensity than a normal worry. Some of the types of obsessions include:

  • sexual obsessions
  • unwanted thoughts about hurting yourself or others
  • fantasies about death
  • worrying that you didn’t do something that you should have
  • worrying about doing something drastically wrong within a religion or belief system
  • constant anxiety about offending other people
  • fear of germs or sickness
  • fear of losing control

These common obsessions may also constitute OCD. While only licensed clinical practitioners should weigh in on whether your obsessions merit a diagnosis, remember that people who struggle with OCD often try to ignore obsessions by developing compulsions.


Compulsions are repeated behaviors with a purpose of trying to deal with obsessive or obtrusive thoughts.

Obsessions differ from compulsions, but they often go hand in hand. Obsessions may cause people to develop compulsions.

However, compulsions can take on obsessive or extreme intensity. For example, someone may feel they must clean and disinfect their whole house when the mail person drops off a package.

Here are some common examples of compulsions:

  • making sure you can’t hurt anyone — for example, by removing all knives from your kitchen
  • making sure appliances are turned off
  • making sure doors and windows are locked multiple times before leaving home
  • checking your body to make sure you don’t have physical symptoms
  • reviewing or going over events or conversations that have happened

Sometimes, people develop compulsions because they feel they can keep negative things from happening by taking these compulsive actions.

Obsessions may be experienced on their own. Or they may be part of other mental health conditions.

Substance use disorder (SUD)

Someone experiencing substance use disorder (SUD) may be more likely to experience OCD. Essentially, SUD can impact the way a person thinks and acts, which may make it hard for a person to limit or stop their substance use.

They may use a substance like alcohol to help them cope with their obsessive thoughts.


Codependency refers to a way of behaving within relationships.

Sometimes, it can look like an obsession because the person experiencing codependency looks overly concerned about the other person in the relationship.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) may also be related to obsessions. Someone experiencing BDD may constantly think about their weight or how they look.

Body image can become an obsession, which someone experiencing BDD may try to fix it with compulsions, like diet restrictions or fasting.

If you think you or a loved one may be experiencing an obsession, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There are many ways to get help.

You may find your obsessions come and go after you heal from a traumatic experience. If you find your obsessions continue and you are developing compulsions to help your discomfort, you may wish to look for additional help.

One option is to find a trusted counselor or therapist.

Another option is to find resources online. For instance, there are podcasts available that focus on providing support to people experiencing OCD. You may also want to research online support groups as a way to help.

No matter which option you choose, make sure it works best for your personal needs.