Obsession VS. Compulsions: Everything You Need To Know

Dealing with a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be challenging. With this condition, you may experience undesirable and persistent obsessions and compulsions that can occupy much of your time and cause distress. 

Depending on the severity of your OCD, obsessions, and compulsions can easily take up all your focus and energies, affecting your personal, school, or professional life.

The good thing is that your life does not have to be defined by your obsessions and compulsions. There are several treatment options and strategies to manage them. 

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health disorder with which a person experiences recurring unwanted ideas, thoughts, and sensations. 

Most people will experience obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors at some point. However, this does not mean they have OCD. 

With OCD patients, obsessive thoughts and compulsions are persistent and extreme. This is to the extent of getting in the way of their daily life activities. 

What are obsessions?

Obsessions are thoughts, ideas, and impulses that keep recurring even if you don’t want to have them. Since you have no control, obsessions can be very upsetting and make it difficult to perform your daily routine.   

In most cases, you may not want whatever you’re obsessed with. But these obsessions cause distress and anxiety. As a result, even if you know they’re not real, you may act on them to gain some relief. 

To avoid acting on obsessions, patients resort to avoiding anything that triggers obsessive thoughts. Unfortunately, doing so may also affect your daily routine, causing further anxiety and distress. 

Themes of obsessions

There are different types of obsessions associated with OCD, and most patients experience several. They include the following: 

Obsessions about losing control and acting on impulse

A person with OCD may worry about acting on impulse or losing control. Such worries may involve:

  • Hurting yourself or others

  • Having aggressive or rude outbursts

  • Stealing and breaking other laws

  • Acting on intrusive thoughts

Obsessions about contamination

These obsessions manifest as a fear of things that can make you ill or dirty, such as:

  • Body fluids

  • Dirt and mu

  • Household items such as cleaning products and bug spray

  • Germs

  • Radiation, pollution, and other hazards

In addition to avoiding hazardous products, you may fear simple contact with other people, like shaking hands. 

Obsessions about causing accidental harm

This obsession comes with a constant fear of hurting others, such as:

  • Hitting a person or animal by accident while driving

  • Poisoning someone by including the wrong ingredient or a toxic element when cooking

  • Causing your office or home to be burglarized by forgetting to lock the door

  • Causing a fire by accidentally leaving an appliance plugged in or the stove on

Obsessions about taboo behaviors

In society, some things are deemed unacceptable. Obsessions about taboo behaviors involve thoughts, images, and urges for things considered morally wrong. 

They can involve:

  • Worrying about being violent to others

  • Having unwanted thoughts about sexual behaviors you’re not interested in

  • Thinking sexually explicit thoughts about children, family members, or aggressive sexual activities

  • Worrying that common behaviors are immoral or wrong

People dealing with OCD can have such obsessions even if they do not want them nor are going to act on them. This disorder can be distressing as you battle thoughts and desires you don’t want. 

Obsessions about order and perfection

OCD patients can become obsessed with having everything in a specific order or symmetrical at all times. 

This obsession goes beyond perfectionism. If something is slightly off, you’ll feel frustrated and need to adjust it until it’s exactly how you want it.  

Notable symptoms of this obsessions include:

  • Keeping everything in symmetrical order

  • Fearing you have forgotten or will forget an essential detail

  • Wanting to keep objects in a specific order or facing a particular direction

  • Worrying about throwing things away because you may need them later 

What are compulsions?

Compulsions refer to the mental or physical responses to obsessions. Just like obsessions, you may not want to do them. However, you’ll feel a strong urge to do them repeatedly. 

Compulsions are a product of obsessions for which they provide some relief. However, this relief is only short-lived as you have to keep performing the compulsion to sustain it. As a result, compulsions can take a considerable portion of your time, affecting other areas of your life.

Themes of compulsions

Compulsions come in many forms. Some common themes include: 

Mental compulsions

Also known as though rituals, metal compulsions include:

  • Counting to a specific number

  • Praying

  • Making lists or numbering tasks or actions

  • Canceling out a negative image or word by replacing it with a positive one

Checking compulsions

Checking compulsions may involve:

  • Going over work repeatedly to ensure there are no errors

  • Making sure windows and doors are locked

  • Making sure you switched off appliances

  • Ensuring you don’t have physical symptoms by repeatedly checking your body

Cleaning compulsions

These compulsions result from the fear of becoming dirty or exposed to illness-causing contaminants. In response, you clean yourself or parts of the environment excessively. 

Such compulsions include:

  • Following a specific washing ritual

  • Maintaining hygiene standards and practices that seem excessive to most people

  • Washing your hands multiple times

  • Avoiding coming into contact with people or particular objects

Arranging or repeating compulsions

These compulsions involve:

  • Arranging things in specific patterns

  • Keeping similar or related objects facing in one direction

  • Performing body movements such as clapping a particular number of times

  • Touching parts of your body in a specific order or multiple times

  • Performing actions a certain number of times

Relationship between obsession and compulsion

Obsessions and compulsions characterize OCD. You’ll first experience intrusive, repetitive, and unwanted thoughts, making you anxious and distressed. 

You’ll perform the compulsions to alleviate the anxiety and distress, becoming repetitive and ritualistic. Any time you cannot complete the compulsion to completion, you feel an unrealistic fear.

If you have obsessions and don’t act on them, your fear and anxiety will continue increasing, affecting your capacity to function normally. However, compulsions do not offer long-term relief. Instead, they become vicious, repetitive cycles that cause you stress.

While obsessions and compulsions often have a close relationship, that’s not always the case. How they manifest in different people varies.

Difference between obsessions and compulsions

When it comes to obsession vs compulsion, there are subtle differences that you should take note of. They vary in the following ways:


Obsessions are recurring and unwanted ideas, images, and thoughts. Compulsions are recurring behaviors or actions.


Obsessions can lead to compulsions. This means compulsions come as a result of obsessions.


Obsessions can cause deep anxiety, fear, and worry. Compulsions are generally completed to reduce this distress. They both disrupt your life by preventing you from performing your daily activities.

Can one exist without the other?

In the context of OCD, compulsions are the result of obsessions. However, compulsions don’t need to occur, and there’s a variation of OCD. 

Patients with the “pure O” variation of OCD mostly experience obsessions. While you may experience compulsions, they won’t be the ordinary compulsive ritualistic routines OCD patients exhibit. 

Impulsive vs compulsive: How to manage symptoms

Living with OCD can be challenging. While there are numerous treatment options, finding one that works well for you may take some time. 

So, aside from treatment methods specific to OCD, there are other steps you can take to alleviate symptoms. 

Practice mindfulness

A key trait of OCD is the need to do things or keep things in a particular way. If they’re not as you wish, you can quickly become stressed, worsening your symptoms.

One method you can use to help with this is to practice mindfulness meditation. This practice will help you unlock a more significant state of awareness, giving you more control over your feelings and actions. 

Mindfulness meditation has been proven to have a stress- and anxiety-reducing impact on people. Moreover, it can help you resist the urge to perform compulsions. In essence, it reduces impulsiveness, which is often associated with compulsions.

Let go of guilt and shame

OCD is a highly misunderstood condition. Aside from the people you’re close to, most will not understand what you’re going through and why you perform compulsions. The net result is that you may feel embarrassed.

The first thing you should understand is that such individuals may not know what OCD is. More importantly, your condition does not define you, and you’re the one in control.

Therefore, to get the best results in managing OCD, you must let go of guilt or shame. Instead, own your condition and take proactive steps to manage it. 

Find other avenues to channel anxiety

Obsessions often result in stress and anxiety. This is followed by a strong urge to act on them, which is not ideal. 

The more time you spend thinking about obsessions, the more anxious you’ll be and the stronger the urge for compulsions. So, find ways and other avenues to channel the anxiety to distract you from obsessions. 

Ideal strategies include finding a hobby or exercising. 

When to seek help

Fixating over something or someone and having strong and unexplainable urges to do something is normal. However, if such thoughts and urges are unwanted, eat up your day, and negatively impact your personal and professional life, it likely indicates OCD.

If so, consider talking to a therapist. They will help you identify your obsessions and compulsions and recommend ideal ways to address them. 

The lowdown

Obsessions and compulsions have a close relationship but are not the same thing. Also, while compulsions are often the result of obsessions, you can prevent yourself from doing them. For this, you’ll need to find the appropriate treatment and combine it with techniques such as mindfulness, exercise, and finding an engaging hobby.


It may take some time before you fully understand obsession vs compulsion, and you likely have some questions. Here are some of the common questions and their answers.

1. What is the difference between obsessions and compulsions in psychology?

Obsessions are unwanted and repetitive thoughts, ideas, and impulses that can disrupt your daily life. Compulsions are the physical or mental manifestations of obsessions aimed at alleviating stress. However, as compulsions become repetitive, they affect your daily routines.

2. How can you tell if someone is compulsive?

Compulsive behavior is often irrational and repetitive. For instance, a person may check if doors and windows are locked several times. 

3. What are the different types of obsessions?

Obsessive thoughts can cause anxiety and stress and affect your daily routines. Obsessions can be broad and differ for everyone. Common themes include fear of body fluids, poisonous household items, dirt and mud, hazards like pollution and radiation, and unintentional harm to self and others. 

4. What are the different types of compulsions?

Common compulsions involve cleaning and excessive levels of hygiene, touching objects, arranging or facing things in a particular direction, tapping, and counting to a specific number.

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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