What exactly does it mean to have OCD?
Like many mental health diagnoses, OCD is misunderstood by many people and the term is often misused.
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Written by Sonder
Updated over a week ago

Kate McLisky is a clinical psychologist with a background in mental health research. Kate works clinically with an integrative therapeutic approach to help clients of all ages to manage and reduce symptoms of mental health disorders.

How often have you heard someone (maybe even yourself) refer to their cleaning habits or desire for being organised as “OCD”?

It happens a LOT - But what does a diagnosis of OCD actually mean?

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. To understand OCD, it’s best to start with understanding the name: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. People with OCD experience both obsessive and compulsive symptoms.

Obsessive Symptoms

These are repeated, persistent and unwanted thoughts, urges or images that are intrusive and cause distress or anxiety. Obsessions are often focused on:

  • Fear of contamination or uncleanliness

  • Doubting and uncertainty

  • Needing things orderly and symmetrical

  • Aggressive or horrific thoughts about losing control and harming yourself or others.

Obsessions are often incredibly distressing and may include fears that can range from forgetting to lock the house or turning off the stove, to worrying that you will offend, sexually assault or physically harm another person.

Compulsive Symptoms

Compulsions are behaviours – whether external (something you do or say) or internal (something you think, or avoid thinking about) - that are created in response to obsessions and performed to reduce anxiety around obsessions.

For a person with OCD, it seems as though performing a compulsion will reduce fear or prevent something bad from happening. Compulsions are not enjoyable and usually offer only temporary relief from anxiety. Some common compulsions are:

  • Washing and cleaning

  • Checking

  • Counting

  • Orderliness

  • Following a strict routine

  • Demanding reassurance.

Sometimes compulsions are rules or rituals that cannot be rationally related to the obsession. For example, reciting your 8 times tables in order to prevent harm coming to a family member.


Although OCD is a serious and often horrible disorder, the good news is that treatment is available. If you think you or someone you know has OCD, start by talking to your GP, or encouraging them to do the same.

Psychological treatment is available using evidence-based treatments such as Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), a type of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) that helps patients to practice confronting the thoughts, images, objects and situations that provoke anxiety/obsessions, and then to prevent the OCD-conditioned response by making a choice not to respond with a compulsion once the anxiety has been triggered.

Medical treatment is also available, and will likely be prescribed by a psychiatrist, who you will be referred to by your GP. It sometimes takes some time to find the right fit with medication or in therapy, so patience is necessary!

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app to connect to our team of qualified, caring health professionals.

Article written by: Kate McLisky

Image credit: The Aviator

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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