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Recognizing the Symptoms of OCD

man with OCD washing hands

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is defined by intrusive or unwanted thoughts or images as well as repetitive impulses or behaviors that, when avoided, leave the individual depressed or anxious.  You may recall from the movie As Good as it Gets that Jack Nicholson’s character has to lock his door several times and shy away from cracks in the sidewalk in order to cope with his anxiety.  And a change in his regular activities sends him into panic mode (as when Helen Hunt, as the waitress, is not around to wait on him one day).  These types of behavior are fairly typical of someone with OCD, although symptoms may be more or less severe and noticeable.  However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if someone you know is experiencing OCD.

  Maybe they’re just particular, or perhaps they have a different nervous disorder like Tourette Syndrome (which can produce some similar nervous tics).  How can you tell if it’s OCD?  There are several warning signs to watch for.

  1. Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors interfere with normal daily activity.  All of us have gotten on the road in a rush only to wonder belatedly if we remembered to turn off the coffee pot or close the garage door.  Some of us may even turn back to be sure.  But someone with OCD may have to check ten or twenty times before they can relax.  They may also be extremely concerned with the safety of friends and family, to the point that they are constantly calling to check up on others.  This type of activity slows their daily lives to a crawl and it is a good indication of OCD.
  2. Fear of germs.  Many people who suffer from OCD feel that they are under constant attack from environmental contaminants, and as a result, they often wash their hands compulsively.  This is not the same as people who carry hand sanitizer and use it after coming into contact with potentially filthy public objects like restroom door handles.  An OCD sufferer may refuse to shake hands, touch others, or touch objects without the use of gloves of tissue and they will often wash until their skin is raw and red.
  3. Extreme organization.  Having a clean and tidy living space is one thing, but if you notice that someone gets extremely anxious when anything is out of place, or that everything in their apartment is coded by color, arranged in numbered groups, or obsessively and symmetrically ordered, you may be justified in suspecting them of having a disorder.
  4. Hoarding.  This is not necessarily an indicator of OCD, but people who refuse to throw things away, or feel that something “bad” will happen if they get rid of anything (even items that are old, broken, or useless), are almost certainly suffering from some sort of obsession or compulsion that requires treatment.
  5. Fear of repercussions.  A good indication that certain behaviors should be attributed to OCD as opposed to other disorders is a fear of punishment.  OCD sufferers often feel that they will face severe repercussions if things are not “perfect” or “just so”.  They generally cannot account for what led them to feel this way, but they are certain that their inability to act on impulses will lead to dire results.


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