Guide to recognizing OCD behavior

Many people struggle with both obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors from time to time. However, not all of those people can be diagnosed with OCD. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder occurs when obsessions and compulsions get to an extreme point. The best way to treat this condition is to enroll in a treatment plan with one of the top online therapy companies. However, recognizing OCD behavior can be quite difficult, especially if this is your first time encountering the disorder. In this article, we will explain exactly what OCD is, explore some of the most common obsessions and compulsions and show you the accompanying signs of OCD behavior.

What is an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

OCD is a mental health disorder that manifests itself once a person finds themselves in a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions. The person suffering from OCD feels like they are driven to do something (a compulsion) due to usually unwanted ideas, thoughts, or sensations (obsessions). For the most part, OCD does not interrupt the person’s daily life but it does make it more difficult. This is due to the fact that is usually rather easy to perform compulsive behaviors but they may take a long time to complete.

plastic bottles
Feeling the need to arrange items “just right” is usually a sign of OCD.

However, if the person fails to act upon their obsessions, OCD can cause them great distress. So much so that people suffering from OCD feel the need to seek help. One of the very common treatments for OCD includes online CBT therapy programs, where patients learn how to identify and control their thoughts and emotions. OCD usually manifests itself in childhood or early adulthood, meaning that there is ample time for the treatment to take effect. The average age at which OCD symptoms appear is nineteen.

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To fully understand OCD, we need to take a good look at two of its defining characteristics: Obsessions & Compulsions.


Obsessions are the main driving force behind OCD. Everyone has experienced obsessions during their lives, they are perfectly normal. However, when these obsessions are persistent and drive you to perform specific actions to avoid the feeling of unpleasantness or distress, you may actually have OCD. These feelings can make you feel like you don’t have control of your life and can induce anxiety, shame, guilt, fear, or even disgust. Recognizing OCD behavior usually comes down to recognizing obsessions for what they are.

frightened child
Most obsessions are derived from fear.

There are as many obsessions that can affect people struggling with OCD as there are people. Every person is unique and their obsessions are their own. That being said, there are some common obsessions that were observed over the years. Most of them include fear of some sort, such as fear of deliberately harming others or yourself (deliberately or by mistake), fear of contamination, fear of losing control, forgetting about something important, etc.

Obsessions can also be about needs such as a need for geometrical precision of objects (one of the most common signs of OCD), a need for symmetry, or a general need for orderliness. Lastly, obsessions can be of a more “scary” nature such as violent or sexual acts. Needless to say, even if you don’t necessarily act on these obsessions, simply having them can be rather distressing. One of the best things you can do is attend one of the online therapy for OCD programs and start working on changing your thought patterns. While OCD can be rather difficult to live with, it is entirely possible to keep it in check and achieve a much higher quality of life.


Compulsions are the second part of OCD. These are the repetitive behaviors that are used to make the obsessions go away, so to speak. When a person acts on their compulsion, they get a temporary reprieve from their obsessions. But not every compulsion is a direct product of an obsession. Sometimes, a person may act on their compulsion to avoid the situation that might have otherwise triggered an obsession.

person in a cardboard box
If obsessions and compulsions significantly interfere with your life, you may have OCD.

Many people connect just about every repetitive behavior with OCD and think that recognizing OCD behavior is all about spotting repetitive actions. In reality, this is seldom the case. Routines and rituals can be a positive part of your life regardless of the fact that you are repeating them over and over again. They can even help you deal with panic attacks! What makes rituals and other repetitive behaviors different from OCD behavior is the feelings that are associated with them.

For example, let’s take a look at one of the very common signs of OCD – the need to have things arranged neatly. If you happen to be a person that simply prefers things to be in an orderly manner, that might not be a sign of OCD. But if you would rather not spend your time arranging and organizing and feel like you are compelled to do so, that is definitely OCD. In other words, people with OCD usually believe that not doing something will bring them misfortune or other negative consequences if they do not act upon their compulsions.

Treating compulsions

There are several ways to try and correct this behavior, CBT and EFT being the most popular ones. One of the benefits of emotion-focused therapy is gaining the ability to identify and understand unhelpful emotions, which are behind obsessions and compulsions. Another great thing about EFT is that patients will learn how to develop a healthy way to cope with situations that bring about unhelpful emotions in the first place.

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Recognizing OCD behavior

person thinking about recognizing OCD behavior
Recognizing OCD behavior requires knowledge and observation.

To be able to recognize OCD behavior, you first need to understand the difference between normal functioning and OCD. Before we talk about the various signs of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, it is important to reiterate that OCD behavior is something that ultimately leads to distress. A person can be neat and orderly without having OCD, after all. The main difference between normal behavior and OCD is the amount of time that your compulsions take to complete each day. And whether those compulsions significantly interfere with your day-to-day life.

Aside from obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, OCD might also manifest itself through “tics”. These tics may include heavy blinking or rapid eye movements, grimacing, shoulder jerking, clearing your throat, or sniffing repeatedly.

Another thing to note is that OCD symptoms might improve or get worse as time goes by. Sometimes, they may appear “out of thin air” only to vanish a short time later. This can make it extremely difficult to recognize OCD behavior, as you might attribute the symptoms to something that is perfectly normal. The fact that symptoms come and go is also one of the main reasons why people avoid starting therapy. They get to think that they will naturally get better with time. But the problem will always persist if you don’t do anything about it.

Signs of obsessive thoughts

clock, representing a way of recognizing OCD behavior
The difference between normal and OCD behavior is usually the time it takes to act on the obsessions.

The first step in recognizing OCD behavior is to observe any signs of obsessive thoughts. These signs can include:

  • The need for constant reassurance
  • Fear of touching objects that others have touched
  • Feelings of anxiety when items are not organized “properly”
  • Constant thoughts of causing harm to others or yourself
  • The constant fear of embarrassing yourself in public due to inappropriate behavior

As mentioned previously, the key difference between normal behavior and clinical obsessions is the amount of time they take. Almost everyone likes their things to be organized, after all, but not everyone has the need for them to be organized all the time. People that are struggling with OCD think that if they do not act on their obsessions, something bad is going to happen. And you can see how that may easily interfere with your day-to-day life. In fact, OCD is one of the common causes of couples therapy.

Dealing with someone who has OCD can be rather difficult, after all. But if your obsessions are not causing you (or anyone else) any distress, you can be safe to assume that you do not have OCD. But if your obsessions “drive” you to do something that you would not rather do, that is a clear sign of OCD.

Signs of compulsive behaviors

person combing their hair
If your obsessions bring you happiness, you have nothing to worry about.

Compulsive behaviors are the OCD’s “answer” to obsessive thoughts. The purpose of these behaviors is to keep something bad from happening. For people that are struggling with OCD, acting on their compulsions is usually the only way to achieve mental stability. Here are some of the signs that you can use to spot compulsive behavior:

  • Always doing things in a very specific order
  • Checking the lights, oven, or locks far more than necessary
  • Frequent hand-washing to the point of dry skin
  • The need to always make sure that your actions haven’t caused harm to someone
  • Arranging items in a very specific way
  • Counting words, objects, letters, or actions
  • Mentally or verbally repeating phrases or word sequences
  • Repeating the same thing a set number of times, such as turning the light on and off six times.
  • Excessive cleaning

Compulsive behavior is not unique to OCD, either. Addiction, binge eating, and hoarding can all have their own compulsions. This fact makes it more difficult to recognize and diagnose OCD behavior. The symptoms themselves may overlap but the underlying cause may be different. Furthermore, it is very important to take feelings into account when diagnosing OCD. If a compulsion presents itself due to a personality trait, it is not a sign of OCD behavior. Basically, if your compulsions bring you joy and/or happiness, there is absolutely no problem with them. But if they are something that you would rather avoid, they may indicate that you have OCD.

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What causes OCD?

To this date, no one really knows what is the underlying cause of OCD. All that we know is that some events or factors may increase the chance of developing the disorder. They include a history of abuse, certain illnesses, work/school problems, relationship problems, the death of loved ones, and a change in a living situation such as starting a new job or getting divorced.

While OCD is not terribly common, with around 2.3% of the population suffering from it (according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America), it still presents significant impairment to the lives of people suffering from it. A 2007 study from Harvard Medical School showed that more than 50% of people suffering from OCD had a serious impairment, almost 35% of people had moderate impairment and only 15% had mild impairment. Therefore, if you believe that you or someone you know is suffering from OCD, you should take action and get a formal diagnosis before considering treatment options.

How to get a formal diagnosis?

The problem with OCD is that there is no test for it. While people may refer to OCD during conversations all the time, actually diagnosing the condition can be rather difficult. The only way your healthcare provider can diagnose OCD is through manifesting symptoms. The diagnosis bases itself on several specific factors, including:

  • Symptoms not being caused by other medical issues, alcohol, drugs, or medications
  • The obsessions and/or compulsions cause significant distress or affect participation in normal life events
  • The symptoms are not connected to another mental disorder
  • Obsessions and compulsions take more than one hour each day

Of course, the person needs to exhibit obsessions and compulsive behavior in the first place, as well. The only ones who can provide you with a formal OCD diagnosis are trained therapists. Recognizing OCD behavior might seem easy but getting an actual diagnosis involves a bit more work.

For more information on OCD, the best OCD therapy programs, and any other information about online therapy, consult the rest of the Consumer Opinion Guide. We are here to provide you with easy access to all the resources you might require to make the best decisions.

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