If you color-code your closet and keep your desk nice and tidy, then you may have asked yourself once or twice if it’s your type-A personality to blame or something more serious. Though obsessive-compulsive disorder only affects about 1% of the adult population in the U.S., says the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, you may still wonder if your intruding thoughts and need for organization are normal behaviors.
Suspect your all-consuming thoughts are the sign of a bigger issue? Here are nine symptoms to watch out for.
1. You’re in constant fear of germs
Fear of germs and contamination is one of the most common displays of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Dean McCay, Ph.D., tells Psych Central. If you’re feeling as if you need to constantly wash your hands or body to avoid bacteria or other undesirable contaminants, then this is a sign you may have OCD.
The more they try to stay uncontaminated, the worse the obsession becomes. If your need for cleanliness feels like it’s completely taken over, consider seeking help.
2. You need everything to be orderly or symmetrical
Ever get the feeling that something in your home is slightly off? Maybe you keep rearranging the centerpiece so it looks more even, or you keep moving the pictures on the wall to create more symmetry, but nothing feels like it fits. Like obsessive hand-washing, this sign falls under what the International OCD Foundation calls the “just right” syndrome.
For those who have a need for everything to be “just right,” their behavior is driven more from a place of discomfort rather than outright anxiety. They feel as if things are never complete and always need readjusting, and by repeatedly moving things around to achieve more order, they feel relief. If anyone’s ever commented on your perfectionist behavior, maybe it’s time you paid attention.
3. You can’t control unwanted thoughts
If you’ve ever had scary, unwanted thoughts with disturbing imagery, you’re not alone. In fact, most people have thoughts that are strange, frightening, or even overtly sexual. It’s not these types of thoughts that are the problem — it’s the reaction to them that matters most. AnxietyBC explains you may have OCD if you become obsessed with these negative thoughts and can’t seem to get over them.
This can give you a lot of anxiety, which in turn can lead to repetitive behaviors for relief. When unnecessary thoughts pop into your head, examine how you react to them to consider whether or not you may have this mental disorder.
4. You can’t let go of old things
Watch an episode of Hoarders and you’ll know how keeping all your old junk can be a slippery slope. There are plenty of sentimental pieces we never want to trash, but most people can manage to clean out their closets and basements every once in awhile. Some of those with OCD find it nearly impossible to get rid of their old things, however. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, hoarding can come from compulsions like excessively buying sale items or a severe anxiety of throwing away important items.
5. You avoid situations that may feel disorderly or triggering
If your mind seems assaulted with unwanted thoughts day in and day out, you may start to avoid certain situations that stir them in the first place. If big crowds worry you, then don’t go shopping on Black Friday. If the ocean brings thoughts of drowning, never visit the beach. Simple, right? Psych Central says it’s common for those with OCD to try to avoid their triggers, but this typically makes things worse. If you have OCD, you may totally avoid that vacation you’ve been looking forward to or that sale at the store if it means coming face to face with your anxieties.
6. Your obsessive thoughts last for at least one hour each day
An intrusive thought here and there isn’t much to worry about. If you find yourself obsessing over these thoughts for long periods of time — even when you’re aware this isn’t normal behavior — then you have a right to be concerned. The National Institute of Mental Health says those with OCD cannot control what they’re thinking about even when they know it’s excessive. If you spend more than an hour a day obsessing or performing any number of rituals, then this a serious sign you may have the illness. OCD can easily rob you of your time if you don’t seek treatment.
7. You have a tic disorder along with other symptoms
First, let’s be clear — tic disorders and OCD are not one in the same. The International OCD Foundation explains tic disorders, such as Tourette syndrome, are classified differently. But while there are distinct differences between the two, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest there’s a close relationship here.
Those with OCD will perform rituals over and over again to help reduce their anxiety, while tics are sudden, repetitive, and can range from very mild to severe — repeatedly fluttering eyelashes or counting objects are common amongst those with tic disorders, for example.
8. You’re scared of harming yourself or others
New Harbinger Publications explains harm OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts about harming yourself or the people around you. We’ve all had that fleeting thought of punching someone when we’re angry, but most are able to push the thought aside and carry on. If you have this mental disorder, you may think you’re actually going to carry out this violence. You might even consider you’re incredibly sick for having the thought in the first place, thus causing you to fixate on it even more.
9. Repeating the same activities gives you short-lived relief
It’s common for those with OCD to act on their compulsions for quick relief because, as OCD-UK explains, physical rituals and behaviors can help ward away unwanted thoughts. But it only brings consolation temporarily. These behaviors can even make things worse in the end — the more the ritual is carried out, the less effective it sometimes becomes.
If you find yourself repeating the same behaviors — washing your hands multiple times in a row, switching the lights on and off, etc. — just to feel OK enough to continue your day, then your ritual has crossed the line.
What you can do
Like most other mental disorders, no two people respond to the same treatments alike. Psychology Today explains some serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, which are commonly prescribed to those with depression, are approved for those with OCD as well. For those not looking to take medication, cognitive behavioral therapy has proven very effective for many. When working with a therapist, it’s common for the patient to be exposed to situations that trigger obsessive thoughts so they can then learn how to overcome them.
Self-help and support groups are also available within communities and online. Stress management tactics, like daily exercise and meditation, may also help.