Compulsions and OCD: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Stephanie Foley

Stephanie has a BA & MA iin psychology and has taught for 13 years.

Excessive hand-washing, counting and hoarding are examples of compulsions: repeated and ritualistic behaviors set off by intensely anxious thoughts. Sufferers of OCD feel driven to these irrational behaviors to calm themselves temporarily.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Affecting about 2% of the U.S. population (other western cultures show similar data), OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. Sufferers may have mild, moderate or severe cases, and it is diagnosed in both men and women and in children. Severe cases may be so disabling that people may become shut-ins, lose their jobs and relationships, and have a diminished quality of life. OCD can coexist with major depression.

The two key characteristics of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. The obsessions are often intrusive, negative, and unwanted thoughts. People tend to obsess about the same concepts, whether they be germs, illness, religious preoccupation, forgetting or death. The intensity of the anxiety is irrational, as the sufferers are usually not under any substantial threat. Compulsive thoughts are so overwhelming that sufferers feel compelled to do something to calm themselves or something terrible will happen to them or to others.


Compulsions give people with OCD a brief respite from their anxiety. Their building anxiety from their obsessions forces them to find a way of alleviating some of that worry. For example, if they are obsessed with germs and illness, they might wash and clean constantly, going through bars of soap per day and not leaving their homes. If the obsession is not trusting their memories, they may compulsively count the number of times they lock their front doors or shut off the stove. If the fear is losing something valuable or going without, they may hoard everything (including their own garbage) or only specific items (magazines, newspapers) to the point of living in squalor.

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