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Difference between Obsession and Compulsion

Difference between Obsession and Compulsion

What is OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD is a mental disorder wherein an individual experiences recurring and undesirable thoughts, sensations or ideas which are known as obsessions that compels them to carry out behaviour on repetition which is known as compulsions. Let’s understand the difference between Obsession and Compulsion and how it manifests itself in OCD. 

What causes OCD

While there is no conclusive evidence of the root cause of OCD, research on various patients suffering from OCD has noted two interesting findings.


  • OCD could be a brain disorder: OCD could be a result of problematic communications between the frontal sections of the brain and its deeper structures. This is a result of an imbalance in serotonin, a chemical that is responsible for transferring messages from neuron to neuron. It is noticed that a person’s OCD becomes normal when medications to rebalance the serotonin levels are administered. 
  • OCD could be inherited: Genes are the root causes of various pre-existing conditions that result in poor health or disease that eventually show symptoms in the body. While OCD is a mental illness that is more behavioural centric, people who have the disorder have been found to have come from a long line of family members who showcased similar symptoms. This had led to psychiatrists believing that OCD could be hereditary. Genetic predispositions relating to OCD have been found occurring more in children rather than adults.  

What age does OCD occur

A person can show signs of OCD from anywhere between the ages of 8 to early adulthood.

Obsession and Compulsion: What is the difference?

diffrence between obsession and compulsion


What is obsession?

They are thoughts, ideas, and impulses. Obsessive thoughts have the potential to interrupt your daily life, and they can make it hard for you to carry on with your normal routine. The obsession works in a way where even if you are aware that your obsessive thoughts are not real, you will act on them to gain a sense of relief. They cause unwanted feelings, anxiety, and distress. Hence, you may try to avoid anything that will trigger these obsessive thoughts and this will have implications on your life and routine.

Themes of Obsessive thoughts

Contamination:  Fear of contracting something, like dirt, germs, chemicals, etc.E.g. Shaking hands with others thinking, ‘Did I contract germs from them?

These obsessive thoughts include worries that could make you dirty or sick, some of them are-

  • Dirt and mud
  • Bodily fluids
  • Pollution, radiation, and other hazards
  • Illness and germs
  • Poisonous household items like bug spray and cleaning products
  • Unintentional harm to self or others- Fear of harming themselves or others through negligence.E.g., ‘What if I didn’t lock the doors properly?

Symmetry: A need to have items or things in a specific order and symmetry. E.g. Aligning clothes in a certain way, for example in color, or facing a certain direction.

Taboo behaviors: These obsessions may come up as images and urges. These urges and images can be quite upsetting and they can involve-

  • Worry about acting violently towards others
  • Fear that ordinary behaviors (masturbation or sexual thoughts) are wrong or immoral 
  • Fear that one is deviant from social norms

What are Compulsions? What is the meaning of a compulsion?

Compulsions are the physical or mental responses to obsessions. You may experience the need to repeat these behaviors all the time, even if you don’t want to do them. This activity is time-consuming and can take up hours within your day. When a person carries out the compulsions that are a result of obsessions, then they experience relief which lasts for a short term and is usually short-lived.

Obsession and Compulsion

Themes of Compulsive actions

Washing or cleaning: Because of the excessive fear they wash and clean themselves, excessively. Sometimes to the point being ritualistic in nature.

Checking: Because of the excessive fear of burglary they would check doors, locks repeatedly an unnatural number of times.

Counting, tapping, and touching objects: Compulsions involved here would be counting, tapping, touching objects in a particular way, or particular times in an attempt to achieve a certain pattern or symmetry to the action. It is usually performed as a self-soothing ritual during times of anxiety. 

Relationship between Obsession and Compulsion 

Since the obsessions are repetitive ideas and thoughts that are unwanted, they can cause distress and anxiety. Compulsions are carried out to make individuals feel safer. These compulsions end up being ritualistic and repetitive to reduce the stress but if the ritual is disrupted, the individual will harness an unrealistic fear (obsession) as they did not complete the ritual.

Culminating to a vicious cycle, for instance, an individual has an obsessive thought about dying due to the cooking stove being on. This will cause them stress, they would repeatedly check the stove (compulsive behaviour) and this checking will make them ‘feel’ safer (short-term relief) and thus they decide to check the stove ‘5 times’ before leaving for work.

Now, if one day they were not able to check the stove ‘5 times’ (compulsive behaviour), they begin to develop an irrational fear of dying (obsessive thought) due to the cooking stove being on. This causes them stress and they would go to great lengths to make sure they check the stove ‘5 times’ daily to feel safe. Unfortunately, these obsessions do not go away until the ritual is performed.

Can obsessions exist without compulsions?

While we usually think about the obsession-compulsion difference in the context of OCD, there is a variation of OCD that is referred to as “pure O”. This variation comes under the idea that OCD only involves obsessions.

Professionals believe that this variation does include compulsions, but they are very different from typical compulsive routines. The pure obsession will include intrusive thoughts and images of the following-

  • Hurting yourself or other people
  • Blasphemous or religious thoughts
  • Unpleasant thoughts about romantic partners and other people

According to obsession psychology, you worry about these harmful thoughts and spend a lot of time worrying about whether they make you a bad person. The thoughts can be a part of compulsions, just not as concrete as the typical compulsion routines.

How to support a loved one who is suffering from obsessive-compulsive symptoms?

When you find their demanding and exhausting it can be on the patient who has OCD, then as their loved one, you may be deeply involved in the person’s routines. You might have to take up major responsibilities in the patient’s life. The stress can cause distress and disruption within the family. Here are some ways you can support a family member with OCD.

Understanding OCD:

People who suffer from compulsive disorders usually feel distressed and frustrated about the behaviours. So, when family and friends are informed about the disorder, it’s easy for them to be understanding and supportive.

Whether it is obsessive cleanliness thoughts or behaviours that’s triggered by fear, OCD patients will always seek reassurance from others. When people do not understand the repercussions of compulsive behaviours they connect OCD disorders to laziness, lack of willpower, trauma, or bad upbringing. These assumptions lead to shame and guilt. When family members do not understand what is a compulsive behavior, they may find the patient to be annoying and demanding.

Read up about obsessive-compulsive symptoms:

Communication is vital if you want to understand the differences in OCD symptoms. Phrases like, “it’s not you, it’s the OCD talking” can help prevent a downward spiral and reduce any guilt that person may feel. Some other recommendations to support your loved one include:

Encouraging the patient to open up about their disorder and learn how it affects them. This will help you be more supportive, and engage in a constructive conversation with them. However, do not add your perspective on how OCD should be handled because the patients are aware of their condition.

Suggest that the individual seek professional help. OCD is not a condition that can be cured completely, but OCD symptoms can be controlled with an effective treatment plan. If your OCD has led to family members getting involved in your daily routine, excessively, then it’s time to seek treatment to modify their involvement.

Acknowledge any improvements in the patient’s behaviour, this will motivate them to stick to the treatment and get better on their own. 

Discuss the OCD and compulsion traits, talk about their triggers, and the causes behind their repetitive behaviour. The more the individual shares their experience with you, the more comfortable and less anxious they will feel.

It’s important that you be patient and do not lose your temper when interacting with an OCD patient. This will help them focus on their recovery efforts, without worrying about dealing with resentment and anger.

Seeking help for OCD

Once you figure out the difference between obsession and compulsion and admit you have a problem, then it’s time to seek professional help. 

Anyone may experience obsessive and intrusive thoughts, but that does not mean it is OCD. However, if you repeatedly suffer from them and it becomes disruptive to your life, then you may be suffering from the disorder. If you have OCD, it is likely that you experience the following – 

  • Unwanted thoughts take up a big part of your day
  • They affect your personal life and relationships
  • You suffer from anxiety unless you act on them 

If you have experienced these symptoms, then it is likely that you are suffering from OCD. For instance, if you feel like deep cleaning your house and you enjoy the activity, it’s not a sign of OCD because you take pleasure in the routine and are proud of the result. However, when you keep having an obsessive thought like fearing that your child may develop some serious illness if you do not have a completely clean house that is germ-free, it is an indication of OCD.

If you have any OCD symptoms, a therapist will help you identify your obsessions and compulsions and address them in a way that your symptoms can be managed better. 

To learn more about OCD diagnosis and treatment contact us on +919611194949