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What is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition where a person experiences obsessions and/or compulsive behaviours.

Around 50% of people with OCD experience symptoms before the age of 18. Anyone can be diagnosed with OCD. It is not a disease or an illness and you can’t catch it.

What causes OCD?

No one knows for sure what causes OCD. There are a few things that might make you more likely to have OCD, including:
• Family history – Did you know that you are four times more likely to be diagnosed with OCD if someone in your family has it?
• Imbalances in the brain – people with OCD have areas of unusually high activity in their brain or low levels of a chemical called Serotonin.
• Traumatic life events – OCD is more common in people who have experienced traumatic experiences, such as childhood neglect or recent events such as bereavement.
• Personality traits – If you are extremely neat, methodical, incredibly anxious or have a strong sense of responsibility for siblings, you may be more likely to develop OCD.

What are the signs of OCD and when do they start?

Someone with OCD may have obsessive and/or compulsive behaviours.

Obsessions are usually strong and unwanted thoughts, images or urges that make you feel sad and worried. Everyone has unpleasant or unwanted thoughts sometimes but if you have OCD, they affect your life, interrupt other thoughts and don’t go away. Some examples of obsessions include:
• scared of purposely hurting yourself or others
• scared of hurting yourself or others by mistake
• having violent or sexual thoughts that are horrible or scary
• scared of germs, dirt, disease and contamination
• a need for symmetry or orderliness
Don’t worry if you take pleasure in cleaning and like your bedroom in a certain way. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD. Feeling a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment after cleaning is completely normal and is not a sign of OCD.

Compulsive behaviours are usually behaviours to try and reduce stress caused by obsessive thoughts. A lot of people with OCD know that these behaviours won’t help but feel they have to do it as they are worried something bad will happen if they don’t do it. Some common compulsive behaviours include:

  • frequent cleaning and hand washing
  • counting
  • tapping
  • ordering and arranging
  • hoarding (keeping things and struggling to throw them away which makes a lot of mess)
  • avoiding places and situations that could trigger obsessive thoughts
  • asking for reassurance a lot
  • repeating words in their head
  • thinking “neutralising” thoughts to counter obsessive thoughts
  • repeatedly checking things


Obsessive thoughts are usually followed by compulsive behaviours. People with OCD may notice the following cycle:

OCD cycle

Let’s take a look at an example of someone having an obsessive thought, followed by a compulsive action:


OCD example

Signs of OCD usually start around puberty (this is usually between the ages of 8 and 14) but it can be earlier or later than this.

How is OCD treated?

The main treatments for OCD are:
• Talking Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT will encourage you to face your fears rather than worrying about them and using unrealistic behaviours to avoid them.
• Medicine – such as antidepressant medicine called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These help by altering the balance of chemicals in your brain.

How to get help:

If you think you may have OCD, this is okay. It is not your fault and it is important to seek support. You can do this by:
• Telling a parent, carer or teacher who can help you access the services you need.
• You can see your GP. For how to book an appointment or find a GP surgery, use this link Appointments and bookings at your GP surgery – NHS. Click here if you are a refugee or asylum seeker to make an appointment with a GP.
• ChatHealth is an NHS service offered to 11-19 year olds. You can text a question and a professional will get back to you. Click here to start a conversation with a professional.



How to get help

If you have any more questions on this area or would like to speak to somebody about this topic, have a look at the links or search for your local services in the blue box below. Alternatively you can always contact your school nurse.

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