Like the name suggests, obsessive-compulsive disorder, better known as OCD, is an anxiety disorder that revolves around obsessive, unwanted and stressful thoughts and compulsions to act out certain ritualistic behaviors, usually in order to make sure nothing bad happens or in some cases, to encourage something positive to occur. The most common or most talked about symptoms involve repeated hand washing and checking and re-checking things like locked doors and light switches but OCD has a wide and vast spectrum and the symptoms just depend on a person-by-person basis.
In the U.S. alone, around 3.3 million people suffer from this disorder. Globally, around 2.3% of our entire population between the ages of 18 and 54 currently has OCD or has suffered from it at some point in their lives. Yes, that past tense verbiage is correct. It is possible to beat OCD. Usually, conquering this disorder involves proper treatment from a therapist. Treatment can include regular talk therapy to understand the root of the problem and/or relatively new advances in therapy such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) treatment. So fear not, if while reading this list you happen to recognize several, or perhaps all, familiar behaviors. Here are 15 common traits in people with OCD.
16. Compulsive Hand Washing And Re-Washing
It’s not just limited to repeated hand washing. People who constantly have to use hand sanitizer after touching one small item such as a pencil from their desk or perhaps nothing at all, are also considered to be “washers” – a term for one category of OCD symptoms. While it may seem there’s nothing wrong with having extra diligent hygiene habits, obsessive hand washing can actually be serious. It can lead to chronic red, chapped and even cracked skin from over washing and some washers will only wash their hands in water of extremely hot temperatures which can cause open sores.
Just like the varying traits of OCD sufferers, there are varying traits of washers. Some feel the need to do it because they feel they are impure and believe that the repeated washing will restore their pureness and bring good morality. Some believe that hand washing can ward off diseases that they think they may have caught from touching a public door handle or shaking hands with a stranger.
15. Checking Rituals, Lights Switches, Ovens And Locked Doors
Checking rituals, also referred to as checking behaviors, affect approximately thirty percent of OCD sufferers. The most common items to re-check are light switches (to outside lights) door locks and oven on/off switches but it’s really not limited to these things. A checker may re-check to make sure they have turned off a particular item any amount of times while other checkers have to make sure they check something a specific number of times. Sometimes the OCD sufferer is aware that they are just completing a ritualistic behavior and comprehends that the item is turned off but in other instances, the person may have convinced themselves that they are not sure or can’t remember if they made sure it was off the last time they checked.
14. Organizing To A Fault And Becoming Stressed When Minuscule Details Aren’t “Just So”
Some people just like to see things in order and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But the distinction comes when people need to see things in order… or else. What lies on the other end of that “or else” can be completely different depending on the OCD sufferer. They might panic and feel incredibly anxious if they can’t get things in the proper order that they feel they must be in, they might display agitated behavior or they might just shut down entirely.
For people who suffer from OCD, organizing must be achieved to a level of precise perfection that only they can judge. Not only can this be incredibly time-consuming and mentally tiring but it can interfere with their jobs and their personal lives depending on how much of their time is spent organizing and if the need to organize things their way conflicts with how things should be kept realistically. For example, an OCD sufferer might keep their files in a certain way but their co-workers may have trouble finding what they need. They may organize things in the home in such a way that it annoys their partner or family members. This can be a frustrating situation for all involved.
13. Cleaning Things Repeatedly And So Much That It Interferes With Daily Life
Think twice the next time you have the urge to accuse your mom, roommate or girlfriend of having OCD if you consider them to be “neat freaks.” There is actually quite a difference between the so-called neat freaks and those with OCD. Neat freaks don’t clean things that are already clean. People who suffer from OCD may understand that what they are cleaning is already clean because they have just washed it but they are battling their disorder which tells them that it needs to be cleaned again anyway… and again… and again.
OCD sufferers who are considered “washers” will likely be overzealous cleaners as well. Like repeated hand washing, repeating and vigorous cleaning tricks people with OCD into thinking that this cleaning will fix the unwanted and intrusive obsessive thinking patterns that they are afflicted with. The sad thing is that cleaning only helps chase away the negative thoughts momentarily. Once they stop cleaning, the thoughts will typically soon return and the need to clean to help “erase” the thoughts will only be greater and greater as time goes on.
12. Ritualistic Counting Behaviors
Counting is a trait that most people with OCD have or have dealt with at some point. The degree to which counting takes importance in their lives will vary. They may incorporate counting with other OCD traits such as feeling the need to clean a countertop five times or checking to make sure the light switch has been turned off five times if they consider five to be a “lucky” or “safe” number. Or they may use counting in a sporadic manner as a coping mechanism in times of stress. Some may feel the need to count how many trees they see while jogging in a park, for example. Then there are the counters. These are OCD sufferers whose lives are run by certain numbers.
Quite literally, they can’t get these specific numbers out of their heads. They may count their steps, needing to end on say, a number with nine in it. If they land on step eighty-seven, it may cause them irritation and great distress. So they may keep walking until they reach step ninety-nine even though their destination was twelve steps behind them. When counting behaviors impede on daily life in this way, it is time to seek professional help to see what can be done for relief.
11. Constantly Fielding Unwanted Fear-Of-Violence Thoughts
No one wants bad things to happen to them. But OCD sufferers who have constant unwanted fear-of-violence thoughts are obsessed with the what-ifs. What if while driving to work, I get carjacked today? What if someone breaks into my house while I’m sleeping? What if someone assaults me as I’m walking down the street? It’s as if the disorder has hijacked their thoughts. These obsessive and intrusive thoughts can hinder their day-to-day activity and in some cases, the thoughts may be so bad that they may cancel plans or refuse to the leave the house until the disturbing thinking subsides enough. These thoughts can go hand in hand with any of the ritualistic behaviors as the OCD sufferer may believe that if they complete rituals, they will ward off violence against them.
Fear-of-violence thoughts are not limited to the OCD sufferer alone. They may constantly worry about their loved ones and friends being attacked as well. They may call them to check up on them or insist that their loved ones text them to make sure that they get to work okay every day, for example.
10. Constant Doubting Over Large And Small Things
This can be an especially frustrating trait for OCD sufferers to deal with and it is extremely common among them. Over and over again, the unwelcomed and unnecessary thoughts will bombard their brain. The thoughts do not distinguish between something that is a big deal and the smallest details. For example, if a person with OCD mails their rent check in (let’s just pretend that people still mail things) they may worry that they forgot a stamp or worry that they didn’t seal the envelope up well enough or worry that the mailbox they put the check in will be vandalized or broken into. These thoughts may snowball and soon the worries will become greater. They may begin to worry that their landlord may evict them over non-payment or that someone will steal the check and commit identity theft on them. The worries can be non-stop (hence the need to find relief for them through cleaning, etc.) and as you can see, can take up quite a bit of time.
9. Constant Moral Dilemmas Or Unwanted Blasphemous Thoughts
Even if the OCD sufferer is not extremely religious or perhaps not religious at all, a very common trait for those with the disorder is a fear of blasphemous thoughts. The OCD sufferer may have a sudden, unwanted urge to think a blasphemous thought and then feel immoral and need to complete a ritualistic behavior or clean something in order to restore purity for themselves in their mind. Similarly, a person with the disorder may think an immoral thought (or what they deem as immoral) and feel the need to count, clean, check, etc. to regain morality.
Another trait is feeling the need to amend for others’ blasphemy. If they hear someone curse using God’s name, especially a loved one, they may feel the need to complete a ritual or behavior to correct what the other person has done. Typically, they will do this to “ensure” that nothing bad happens to that person or themselves.
8. Worrying About Catching Diseases
Similar to a hypochondriac, an OCD sufferer might hear of a disease from a news report or brought up in casual conversation and they will typically begin to worry and then, obsess that they might one day contract the disease (this usually is a perfect storm to cycle back to compulsive hand washing and re-washing) or worse yet, worry that they already have the disease. They might look too much into the symptoms and convince themselves that they display symptoms of the disease they are worrying about. For example, if they hear about someone who has AIDS or watch a movie about someone with AIDS, they might begin to obsess over the worry that their immune system hasn’t been working as it should lately.
OCD sufferers who exhibit this trait more than usual are no strangers to the doctor’s office. They will request that blood tests get performed more often than needed and will want to be tested for everything under the sun to make sure and receive assurance that they are in perfect health. If only that reassurance stopped the worrying…
7. Strict Superstitions
It can be easy to confuse obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors with superstitions looking from the outside. As children, we are taught not to step on a crack because it might break our mother’s back. If you are a very superstitious person or were raised by one, you may have learned not to walk under ladders or break mirrors or open umbrellas indoors and if something unlucky happens, it can be magically reversed if we immediately toss salt over our shoulders. On the other hand, knocking on wood and putting your feet up when the clock strikes 11:11 or 1:11 is lucky and can prevent bad things from happening. Or so the superstitious believe. For people with superstitions, they believe to a certain degree that something lucky or unlucky may occur. They typically won’t continue to worry after the incident has passed.The difference is that people with OCD take these superstitions or varying versions of them or sometimes, they create their own entirely, to a whole new level of stress. In their minds, they have a scary amount of control over situations, even life or death situations. It can feel like a terrible burden to carry around.
6. Excessive List Making
Lists are great tools to help us stay on top of things and keep track of projects. But when people with OCD use excessive list making as a way to “please their disorder” it can be anything but great. Excessive list making can be used like the other ritualistic behaviors, as a way to fight for control of their thoughts by making the bad thoughts go away. If they make enough lists or write down the exact things that they feel they should, they may feel that they are righting wrongs and pleasing their disorder so that the intrusive thoughts stop. They also may feel the need to write things down as they come to them and may feel if they don’t get the thoughts down as soon as they come into their mind, the thoughts will be lost forever. In that instance, excessive list making can be seen as a tool to save the thoughts. Like other OCD traits of ritualistic behavior, excessive list making only provides very temporary relief and is known to only get worse with time unless treated.
5. Repetitive Rituals
Another common trait that people with OCD typically have is making up their own rituals. It may be something that has carried over from childhood such as the need to jump into bed every night instead of walking right up to the bed so that the monsters or boogeyman do not grab their feet. Though the adult OCD sufferer may not believe in such childish things anymore, the feeling and need to complete this task may remain strong, especially after a period of so many years. The adult sufferer may feel that if they stop doing this now, their string of good luck (from doing the ritual for so long) will unravel and they will be plagued with bad luck.
They may have a certain routine as they walk to work, counting steps or touching certain objects like lamp posts as they pass. Completing the same ritual on a daily basis can be very important to the mental well-being of a person with OCD. If, for example, there is work being done a street on their route and they need to take a path they are not accustomed to, they may have more than the usual amount of intrusive thoughts and need to complete more rituals to try to offset the “bad luck.”
4. Repeatedly Asking For Reassurance
Examples of this particular trait of OCD might look like a co-worker asking you to re-read for the third time, an email they sent to your boss. They might repeatedly ask you how they come off in the email and want assurance that their wording and tone is appropriate. For those involved romantically with an OCD sufferer, they might constantly be asked if they love them or want reassurance that they are not mad at them about anything. This is different from having low self-esteem and being insecure though the OCD sufferer might also have those qualities as well.
While reassuring the OCD sufferer can provide temporary relief for them, it is usually not enough to completely calm their anxiety unless they are repeatedly assured, over and over again, which for obvious reasons, can be annoying and frustrating to the people in their lives.
3. Pathological Slowness In Carrying Out Routine Activities
The most obvious negative consequence of this trait is that the quality of an OCD sufferer’s job performance may suffer due to pathological slowness. While that can be very true, pathological slowness can easily negatively affect many areas of their lives as well. They may spend an hour making sure that they chose the “right” brand of dish soap at the store, causing them to be late for an appointment. They may take twenty minutes to brush their hair, making sure that they did it correctly or in a way that ensures they completed a ritual.
All of the burdens and worry and stress that come with rituals and the time spent on their disorder can also be very tiring for an OCD sufferer, making them physically exhausted which only worsens the trait of pathological slowness. In severe cases, OCD patients can be additionally diagnosed with obsessional slowness or OS.
2. The Need For Perfect Symmetry
If you’ve ever watched the TV show Monk, about the former police detective with OCD, you’ll understand a little about how OCD patients operate when it comes to the quest for perfect symmetry. This is different from being overly organized though it is in the similar pattern of thinking and behaving. But the need for perfect symmetry takes things one (giant) step further and demands that the OCD patient’s life be in complete and total order. This can mean that rather than having every pen in one section of a drawer (organized), every pen must be lined up according to height and color in that section of the drawer (symmetry).
While the OCD patient is busy completing the tasks of arranging everything in the home and workspace to abide by these symmetrical rules they feel they must follow, they might feel a great deal of relief, only to have that relief later (inevitably) crushed when even the tiniest thing gets out of place.
1. Irrational Concerns About Eating “Bad” Or “Unclean” Foods
Another common trait for OCD sufferers is a preoccupation with their food and weight. Usually, this involves behaviors such as making sure that every bite of food they take is the same size. Another very common trait is not letting different foods touch on the plate. An OCD sufferer may also have irrational thoughts that some foods are good and some are bad and must be avoided at all costs. This can translate over to colors as well. They may feel it’s good luck and in their best interest to eat foods that are green but to stay away from foods that are red, for instance.
On the TV show, Everybody Loves Raymond, the character, Robert has a habit that borders on OCD or is OCD altogether, where he must touch his food (in a fork or a spoon) or his drinking glass to his chin before consumption. It’s a running joke on the show at Robert’s expense but for people who really do suffer from OCD, meal time can be a stressful event and it can take quite a while to get through a simple meal.