A person on one side being engulfed by his obsessions and two individuals on the other side engaging in compulsions.

Artwork by Taniya Pramanik

A person on one side being engulfed by his obsessions and two individuals on the other side engaging in compulsions.

Difference between Obsession and Compulsion

Medically reviewed by

Written by Parth Sharma

You may have come across the term OCD in many day-to-day conversations. However, through popular media, the understanding of OCD is often skewed. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health disorder that occurs when a person gets captured in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.

Difference between Obsession and Compulsion

Obsessions are intrusive thoughts that trigger intensely distressing feelings. At the same time, Compulsions are behaviours done to get rid of obsessions and decrease distress. This provides short-term relief but doesn’t make the obsession disappear.

Obsessions and compulsions can become a cycle that’s difficult to stop. The time you spend on compulsions might begin to take up so much of your day that you find it hard to get anything else done. This can affect your school, work, or personal life, leading to even more distress.

To understand OCD and its effect on a person, it is vital to distinguish between obsessions and compulsions. 

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What are Obsessions?

Obsessions are thoughts, images or impulses that occur repeatedly and feel outside of the person’s control. In most cases, people with OCD recognise that these thoughts don’t make any sense. 

Obsessions are generally accompanied by severe uncomfortable feelings such as fear, disgust and doubt. In OCD, obsessions are time-consuming and get in the way of important activities the person values the most. This is essential in helping us identify whether someone has a disorder than an obsessive personality trait.

People with OCD have difficulty listening to this usage of obsession as it feels as though it reduces their struggle with OCD and its symptoms. Research has shown that most people often have undesirable “intrusive thoughts”, but in the context of OCD, these intrusive thoughts come repeatedly and trigger extreme anxiety that causes their life dysfunction. 

Obsession Symptoms

Some people will have mild obsessions that occur once in a while. In contrast, some people suffer from constant obsessive thoughts and ideas. The following are examples of the same; 

  1. Fear of becoming ill
  2. Fear of germs and dirt
  3. Worry that something has not been done in the proper manner
  4. Constant thoughts about sex
  5. Aggressive thoughts about other people and the environment

What are Compulsions?

These are the second part of obsessive-compulsive disorder. They are repetitive behaviours that a person uses intending to neutralise, counteract, or make their obsessions go away. People with OCD realise this is only a temporary solution. Still, they rely on the compulsion as a quick escape without a better way to cope. Compulsions can also include avoiding situations that trigger obsessions. Compulsions are time consuming and get in the way of important activities the person values.

Like obsessions, not all repetitive behaviours or “rituals” are compulsions. We must look at the function and the context of the behaviour; for instance, arranging and cataloguing books for eight hours a day isn’t a compulsion if the person works in a library.
Similarly, we can look at “compulsive” behaviours that wouldn’t fall under OCD if a person is oriented to details or like to have things neatly arranged. In this case, “compulsive” refers to a personality trait or something about yourself that one prefers or likes. In most cases, individuals with OCD feel driven to engage in compulsive behaviour. They would rather not have to do these time-consuming and, many times, torturous acts. In OCD, compulsive behaviour is done to try to escape or reduce anxiety or the presence of obsessions.

Compulsion Symptoms

Some typical compulsions that result from obsessions include the following;

  1. Brushing teeth repeatedly
  2. Excessive cleaning
  3. Arranging random objects in a systematic way
  4. Checking whether the doors are locked
  5. Checking whether the appliances are turned off

Some other people replicate certain acts or behaviour to displace the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts. Such conduct includes hair-pulling, nail-biting, self-biting, etc. Some individuals may be aware that this kind of repeated behaviour is irrational. Still, they are driven to behave in this way to avoid feelings of anxiety and fear.

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What do Obsessions and Compulsions look like Together?

Obsessions

  1. They are recurring and irrational thoughts, ideas or images.
  2. This can lead to compulsions
  3. Can cause fear, worry, and profound anxiety.

Compulsions

  1. Are recurring acts or behaviour.
  2. Are a result of obsessions.
  3. Can cause bodily damage.

Anyone can encounter temporary mental obsessions and intrusive thoughts or puzzling desires to carry out a specific task or action. In general, obsessions and compulsions only indicate OCD when they:

  1. take up a substantial part of your day
  2. are undesirable
  3. negatively affect your personal life

Feeling a need to clean because you enjoy a tidy house wouldn’t be a sign of OCD since you delight in the activity and satisfaction with the result. What could indicate OCD, for example, is fearing your child might develop a severe infection if you don’t have a spotless and germ-free house. As a result of this persistent worry, you clean several hours each day. Still, you worry you missed something and feel distressed until you start cleaning again.

When to Seek Help for OCD?

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours can sometimes happen even when you don’t have an underlying mental health condition. However, they are commonly linked to the vulnerability of having OCD. Suppose specific obsessions or compulsions upset you or a loved one, overwhelm you, or keep coming back. In that case, a therapist can offer guidance and support.

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