What It Feels Like to Suffer From OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

Updated on March 1, 2017
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Carla J. Swick is a freelance writer who resides in NW Pennsylvania and works in higher ed technology.


An Unwelcome Illness

“I’m touching again,” says a college student in her 20s. She’s never sure what brings it on; stress maybe, but the “touching” makes her 10 minute shower another 10-15 minutes longer as she taps and counts first her razor, then her shampoo bottle, conditioner, and body wash. It makes no sense, and she does not know why she does it, but she has exhibited symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since very early elementary school. The disease has become part of her life; an unwelcome part, but one she deals with almost daily.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, “OCD affects about 2.2 million American adults. It strikes men and women in roughly equal numbers and usually appears in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. One-third of adults with OCD develop symptoms as children, and research indicates that OCD might run in families.”

What is OCD?

So how does one know if they have OCD, because being overly clean or organized doesn't necessarily mean you suffer OCD although it can be a part of it. People with OCD generally:

  • Have repeated thoughts or images about many different things, such as fear of germs, dirt, or intruders; acts of violence; hurting loved ones; sexual acts; conflicts with religious beliefs; or being overly tidy
  • Do the same rituals over and over such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, counting, keeping unneeded items, or repeating the same steps again and again
  • Can't control the unwanted thoughts and behaviors
  • Don't get pleasure when performing the behaviors or rituals, but get brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause
  • Spend at least 1 hour a day on the thoughts and rituals, which cause distress and get in the way of daily life.

A Disorder of Doubt

OCD is not a respecter of persons. It has nothing to do with low IQ, bad parenting or something a person did to cause it. According to Annabella Hagen, Licensed Social Worker, "Research indicates that OCD sufferers often exhibit high creativity and imagination and above-average intelligence. For those experiencing primarily mental obsessions, it is difficult to dismiss a random weird thought as non-sufferers do."

OCD is a disorder of doubt. Sufferers doubt their thoughts, try to pick them apart and offer suffer great anxiety trying to figure out what's wrong. All the analyzing in the world doesn't fix the problem and only causes further suffering.

Exploring Bad Thoughts

"You are not so abnormal as you think." says Lee Baer, Ph.D., author of the book The Imp of the Mind - Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thought. Baer offers a compassionate voice for sufferers: "Every human being is visited from time to time by the Imp of the Perverse, who make you think the most inappropriate thoughts at the most inappropriate times."

Baer explores why some people are able to let bad thoughts pass through their minds and others will, "reach clinical severity requiring treatment." But for those suffering from the torment of bad thoughts, Baer offers a surprising perspective, "Bad thoughts do not signify that you are truly evil deep down, and voluntarily suppressing these thoughts will only make them stronger." This is the crux for many newer treatment options for patients with OCD. Exposure therapy is basically facing your fears head on and doing so habitually. Though maybe not as successful, Cognitive Therapy (modifying irrational thoughts) can also be helpful. Finally, some drugs, SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors) also prove effective in many cases.

SSRIs can be used to treat OCD


Newer Studies in OCD

And there is more hope for sufferers of OCD. Brain imaging studies are allowing researchers to see the areas of the brain that are active in patients with OCD (see video). Research also indicates some particular genes that might be involved. According to Medical News Today, "Particular genes that may play a role in the development of the condition include hSERT and SLC1A1." hSert in particular may actually be working in conjunction with another mutation that leads to less serotonin, "being available for neuronal communication."

Also, in the early stages is the use of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) for patients who are not responding to other treatment. For information on how DBS works, see this WebMD article.

This research and more being conducted is highly valuable to treating and finding a possible cure for OCD.

Dr. Wayne Goodman on Brain Imaging Studies of OCD

What Sufferers of OCD Say it Feels Like

In the meantime, OCD continues to wreak havoc in lives of many people. They deserve our understanding and our acknowledgment for their bravery as they fight forward through their illness.

When asked in an anonymous poll what OCD felt like, respondents shared the following thoughts:

  • Irrational, hard-to-resist urges to do stupid things like licking one of my teeth in a certain way, clicking a mouse 7 times.
  • Even more irrational. Like just opening and closing my door for no reason. It can be kind of scary feeling compelled to do something you know you don't need or even want to do.
  • It feels like a huge magnet is sucking your brain into doing what you don't really want to do. OCD is exhausting...
  • It feels like everything is just... OFF and can't be fixed until you do whatever your OCD ritual is.
  • For me it's feeling like being scared. Think of walking around the corner and getting scared by a friend or something. Sometimes when I look at dirty dishes in the sink I feel physically scared. Its like my brain pictures germs all over them or something.
  • It's very hard to convey the torture and irrationality that takes place on the mind... People experience different types of OCD, and many people experience many types. Mine have ranged from fear that I want to have sex with animals, children, God, foreign objects, and old people, to scrupulosity and fear that you are doomed to hell, to thinking you are a homosexual, convinced that your thoughts alone can hurt others, etc. there are so many ways it can manifest itself.
  • OCD is like a monster, when in its worst form, keeps morphing into more sickening and frightening thoughts until you think someone should lock me far away in a padded room as I am completely crazy and unable to control my thoughts… it is at this point, even if I don’t want to die, I am desperate to find a way to shut off my brain. It is a very lonely, torturous journey…
  • I undress her in my mind and my OCD kicks in and folds all of her clothes.

OCD: No Respecter of Persons


  • Baer, L. (2001). The imp of the mind: Exploring the silent epidemic of obsessive bad thoughts. New York: Dutton.
  • Hagen, A. (n.d.). What OCD Feels Like: Being Absolutely Uncertain. Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-ocd-feels-like-being-absolutely-uncertain/00012600
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD. (n.d.). Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
  • What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? What causes obsessive-compulsive behavior? (2014, September 25). Retrieved December 18, 2014, from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/178508

For more information and to find a therapist or treatment program, visit the International OCD Foundation.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      3 years ago from NW PA

      Very good point - I hate that too because neat freaks have no idea what it is to suffer OCD. There is a component of OCD that can look like a person is a clean freak, but it has little to do with things being clean and more to do with an underlying fear. For instance, when my daughter was a baby, I was obsessively paranoid about her baby bottle being germ free and I was suffering anxiety because of it - the underlying fear with lots of mom's suffering postnatal OCD is - I'll somehow harm my child.

    • Rafa Baxa profile image

      Rafael Baxa 

      3 years ago

      Nice article.

      I've been suffering from OCD ever since I was little, and sometimes when I see movies potraying OCD as being 'cleanfreaks', it pisses me off. Most people are not even aware of the existence of such a health issue. Thanks for taking part in creating awareness about this.

    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      5 years ago from NW PA

      Thanks for reading, Mel - yes, it certainly can. Treatment is better than it once was, but I think we need to understand more about the brain before there is an actual cure so to speak.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      5 years ago from San Diego California

      I have people close to me who suffer from mild OCD, so that it doesn't go beyond occasionally annoying, but I know this can become a life altering condition. Thanks for sharing this information.

    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      5 years ago from NW PA

      Ms. Dora - the fact that you read the hub and sought to understand is big. More money and research needs done as countless people suffer and three is much to be learned. I'm glad I could shed some light.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I wonder if my compulsion to do laundry every day fits into that category a little bit. I am trying to break the habit so our electric bill comes down, but it really bothers me to have dirty clothes, especially towels. Just wondering. Thank you for your article and input.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for these insights on OCD.

      "OCD is a disorder of doubt." Never heard that but it does help to explain it.

      "is very hard to convey the torture and irrationality that takes place on the mind." This I believe and it makes one feel helpless. Wish more could be done.

    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      5 years ago from NW PA

      Thank you for sharing, Denise. It is difficult to live with and everyone who does is very brave to do so. Take good care.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      OCD is a tough disorder to live with. For me, it is based on repetition and routine. I have to do things a certain way every time, or I have to start over and do it again. I am obsessed with not being good enough, so I have created all of these elaborate "ceremonies" that I do to make sure I get everything done that needs to be done. I even find myself doing this at work. I create a "protocol" that must be done each time I am in a certain situation, that way, I will make sure that I do it correctly.

    • Harmel profile image

      Melody Gibbons 

      5 years ago from Staff Ave Cochranton Pa 16314

      Very interesting article.


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