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.

Understanding the Difference Between Obsession and Compulsion in Mental Health

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.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is characterized by persistent, unwelcome thoughts and behaviors.

In someone with OCD, these obsessive thoughts often lead to compulsive actions aimed at easing these thoughts and reducing discomfort. However, this relief is usually temporary and doesn't eliminate the obsessive thoughts.

The cycle of obsessions and compulsions can be hard to break. If you spend a lot of time on compulsive behaviors, it might start to interfere with your daily life, affecting your work, school, or personal relationships, and causing even more stress.

Keep reading to learn more about the nature of obsessions and compulsions, including examples of how they might manifest in someone's life and when it might be beneficial to seek help from a mental health professional.

The Link Between Obsessions and Compulsions

In OCD, obsessions are intrusive, repetitive thoughts that trigger anxiety and distress. To ease these feelings, individuals engage in compulsions—repetitive behaviors or mental acts. However, these actions only provide temporary relief and often lead to a cycle of increased stress. Failure to perform these compulsions can result in heightened fear. Although there's a strong connection between obsessions and compulsions, their specific manifestations vary among individuals.

It's crucial to distinguish between normal habits or worries and those indicative of OCD. 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

For instance, while enjoying cleanliness does not indicate OCD, an overwhelming fear that not maintaining a germ-free environment could lead to severe infection, leading to hours of cleaning and persistent distress despite these efforts, suggests an OCD pattern. This differentiation highlights the debilitating cycle of obsessions and compulsions that define OCD, setting it apart from everyday concerns or preferences.

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. 

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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; 

  • Fear of becoming ill
  • Fear of germs and dirt
  • Worry that something has not been done in the proper manner
  • Constant thoughts about sex
  • Aggressive thoughts about other people and the environment

Themes of Obsessions

OCD involves various obsession themes, with many individuals experiencing multiple types. These include:

Fears of losing control or impulsive actions

Individuals may worry about harming themselves or others, expressing aggression suddenly, committing theft or other crimes, or acting on unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Concerns about contamination

Fears in this category relate to anything perceived as dirty or illness-causing, such as body fluids, dirt, household chemicals, germs, and environmental pollutants. This fear can extend to avoiding physical contact with others, like handshakes.

Worries about accidentally causing harm

This involves the constant anxiety over unintentionally injuring someone or something, for example, through a car accident, mistakenly poisoning food, failing to secure one's home, or inadvertently starting a fire.

Taboo thoughts and behaviors

These obsessions revolve around socially or morally unacceptable thoughts or impulses, including violent tendencies, undesired sexual thoughts about inappropriate subjects, or fears that normal actions are immoral.

Preoccupations with order and symmetry

Those affected may need things to be arranged precisely or symmetrically, far beyond typical perfectionism. A slight misalignment can cause significant distress, leading to a compulsion to adjust until everything feels 'just right.'

Symptoms of these obsessions can manifest as a need for symmetrical organization, fear of forgetting crucial details, insistence on keeping items in specific arrangements or directions, and reluctance to discard things that might be needed in the future. Living with OCD can be incredibly challenging, as individuals struggle with unwanted thoughts and compulsions that they don't wish to act upon.

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.

Compulsion Symptoms

Some typical compulsion examples that result from obsessions include the following;

  • Brushing teeth repeatedly
  • Excessive cleaning
  • Arranging random objects in a systematic way
  • Checking whether the doors are locked
  • Checking whether the appliances are turned off

Themes of Compulsions

Compulsions in OCD manifest in various ways, with some common patterns being:

Mental Compulsions

Often referred to as thought rituals, mental compulsions can include activities like:

  • Counting to a particular number
  • Engaging in prayer
  • Organizing thoughts or activities by making lists or assigning numbers
  • Neutralizing a negative thought or image by substituting it with a positive one

Checking Compulsions

These compulsions are actions taken to alleviate fears about safety, accuracy, or health, such as:

  • Reviewing tasks multiple times to confirm no mistakes were made
  • Repeatedly verifying that doors and windows are secure
  • Double-checking that appliances are turned off
  • Frequent checks on one's body for signs of illness

Cleaning Compulsions

Driven by concerns over contamination or dirtiness, these compulsions lead to:

  • Following strict and specific cleaning rituals
  • Engaging in excessive personal hygiene practices
  • Frequently washing hands
  • Avoiding contact with people or certain objects to prevent contamination

Arranging and Repeating Compulsions

These compulsions entail:

  • Placing items in precise arrangements or patterns
  • Aligning objects so they all face the same way
  • Executing specific bodily motions, like clapping, a set number of times
  • Touching parts of the body in a certain sequence or repeatedly
  • Carrying out tasks a specified number of times to ensure correctness or safety

These complusion examples are attempts to manage the anxiety and distress caused by obsessive thoughts, though they often end up reinforcing the OCD cycle.

What do Obsessions and Compulsions Look like Together?

In the context of OCD, sufferers typically encounter a persistent, obsessive thought, prompting them to engage in a compulsive behavior as a coping mechanism to alleviate the associated anxiety or stress.

The link between an individual's obsession and the compulsive act that follows can vary, not always being straightforward or predictable.

Below are some real-life examples of obsessions and compulsions, showcasing the diverse and intricate ways they manifest. This list is not exhaustive but aims to provide a clearer understanding of how these two aspects of OCD interact with each other and the significant impact they can have on daily functioning.

Examples of Obsessions and Compulsions

Examples of Obsessions

1. Anxiety over environmental contamination affecting personal health.

2. Fear that a baby might stop breathing during the night

3. Fear of causing harm due to not performing a specific action.

4. Anxiety over losing control and causing an accident.

5. Guilt or worry about not confessing sins or wrongdoings adequately.

6. Compulsive fear of job loss or bad luck caused by not following specific routines.

Examples of Compulsions

1. Excessive washing of hands whenever touching or thinking something has been touched.

2. Setting alarms to check on the baby every 30 minutes throughout the night.

3. Engaging in a ritualistic behavior, like tapping or touching, to prevent imagined harm.

4. Performing physical actions to dispel the intrusive thought.

5. Creating detailed lists of perceived sins and engaging in repetitive confessions or prayers.

6. Following rigid routines, such as intentionally stepping on or avoiding cracks, to prevent adverse events.

Obsessive and Compulsive Features in Mental Health Disorders

Obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors are not exclusive to OCD; they can appear in several other mental health conditions, each with its unique focus and manifestations.

Depression and Obsessive Rumination

Depression can lead to persistent, obsessive thoughts about sadness, guilt, or worthlessness, often focusing on past regrets or perceived failures.

Anxiety and Persistent Worries

Anxiety disorders are characterized by ongoing, excessive worries about past actions and potential future disasters, leading to a state of constant apprehension.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

BDD involves an obsessive focus on perceived flaws in one's physical appearance, often accompanied by compulsive behaviors aimed at hiding or fixing these flaws.

Obsessive Jealousy

This condition is marked by constant fears of a partner's infidelity, leading to compulsive behaviors like snooping or incessant questioning to alleviate these fears.

Illness Anxiety Disorder

People with this disorder obsessively worry about being or becoming seriously ill, engaging in compulsive behaviors such as symptom checking or avoiding germ-exposed places.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders involve obsessive thoughts about food, body image, and exercise, leading to compulsive eating habits or exercise routines in an attempt to control weight and appearance.

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.

Overcome OCD Challenges with Cadabams

To sum up, experiencing obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions doesn't always indicate a mental health disorder, but they are frequently associated with OCD.

Our understanding of the brain and its thought processes is still evolving. It's comforting to know, though, that these patterns of thought usually aren't a cause for concern unless they disrupt your everyday activities or lead to ongoing distress.

Should you find yourself troubled, burdened, or persistently faced with certain obsessions or compulsions, seeking help from a therapist can provide valuable support and direction.

How Cadabams Can Assist You

Cadabams offers a supportive pathway for individuals grappling with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. If you are searching for a solution to your OCD problem, Cadabam’s can help you with its team of specialized experts. We have been helping thousands of people live healthier and happier lives for 30+ years. We leverage evidence-based approaches and holistic treatment methods to help individuals effectively manage their OCD. Get in touch with us today. You can call us at +91 96111 94949

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How does compulsion differ from obsession?

Compulsion refers to repetitive behaviors or mental acts performed in response to an obsession or according to rigid rules, aimed at reducing distress or preventing a feared event. Obsession involves persistent, unwanted thoughts, urges, or images that cause distress or anxiety.

Can obsessions exist without compulsions?

Yes, obsessions can exist without compulsions. This is known as Pure Obsessional OCD, or “pure O”where individuals experience obsessive thoughts without engaging in visible compulsive behaviors.

Is there treatment for obsessions and compulsions?

Yes, treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), specifically Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and medication can be effective in managing symptoms.

How common are obsessions and compulsions?

Obsessions and compulsions are quite common, with OCD affecting about 2-3% of the population at some point in their lives. However, experiencing mild obsessions or compulsions without full-blown OCD is even more common.

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