Recognizing Different Presentations of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

By Brittany Keim, MS, Therapist, The Center for Neuropsychology and Counseling

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts or images; whereas, compulsions are behavioral or mental actions that are performed to reduce the distress or discomfort that an individual experiences. In simpler terms, an obsession is something that you cannot stop thinking about regardless of how hard you try to stop and a compulsion is a behavior that gives you short-term relief from your obsession. For instance, an individual may experience obsessions about their safety when they leave the house. In an effort to decrease their feelings or distress, that individual may stay home and this action will act as a compulsion because it is directly related to a decrease in anxiety or discomfort.

When thinking about OCD, it is important to remember that obsessions and compulsions have to result in significant distress and impairment. This means that obsessions and/or compulsions are time consuming and take away from your ability to participate in everyday activities. Significant distress and impairment may look like being late to school, skipping work, not being able to participate in activities that you once found enjoyable, etc.

Obsessive compulsive disorder is often thought of as excessive hand washing and a fear of contamination or germs, but OCD has many other presentations that can be overlooked. Knowledge of these other presentations is helpful in obtaining a correct diagnosis and receiving effective treatment. Below, I will detail common OCD subtypes, but please note that this is not an exhaustive list of presentations.

Harm OCD – involves intrusive thoughts of harming others or committing a violent act. People fear they could lose control at any moment and engage in violent behaviors. Due to this fear, individuals with this subtype of OCD may engage in significant avoidance. They may avoid interacting with others or completing everyday tasks that pose a risk (e.g., chopping vegetables).

Postpartum OCD – characterized by unwanted thoughts of harming a newborn. Individuals who experience this presentation will often avoid interacting with their baby or they will refrain from engaging in actions that are essential in taking care of a newborn (e.g., changing a diaper).

“Just Right” OCD – obsessions are thoughts and/or feelings that something is not quite right or that something is incomplete. Those who struggle with this subtype of OCD, will often wait to complete a task until it feels “right” or they will excessively engage in a behavior until it feels “right.”

Scrupulosity OCD – strict adherence to religious principles or moral ideals. Individuals will hold themselves to high moral/religious standards and feel extreme guilt or anxiety when they fall short. Some examples of compulsions are: excessively reading scripture or not allowing oneself to enjoy interests in fear that this could be considered sinful.

Relationship OCD – described as repetitive thoughts that center on doubts or fears about the relationship. The person may experience uncertainty and obsess about whether their partner really loves them or whether the relationship will last. A common compulsion related to this subtype is seeking reassurance.

Pedophilia OCD – this subtype of OCD occurs in individuals who have no desire to harm children, but are plagued with worry that they may do so. Individuals may become concerned with their thoughts towards children and/or they may fear that they may interact with a child in a way that is deemed inappropriate.

If you are currently experiencing symptoms of OCD and relate to any of the above presentations, you are not alone. Exposure with response prevention (ERP) is an evidence-based approach to treatment that has been proven to be very effective in treating OCD. Through ERP, an individual will learn to navigate their obsessions and decrease unwanted compulsions that interfere with their everyday functioning. Reach out to The Center today to learn more about receiving treatment for OCD.

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