Understanding the Differences Between OCD Compulsions and General Fear

It is relatively common to hear OCD used as an adjective, such as when someone puts things in order or feels like they are washing their hands all the time because of the pandemic since one of the more common types of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is the fear of contamination and disease, and the intense anxiety that it brings.

But those with OCD know that the reality of acting on a compulsion is far different from the general precautions you may take to avoid dirt, keep from harming others, or double checking to be sure you locked your front door. These differences are an important distinction between OCD behaviors and normal anxiety.

Anxiety vs Compulsive Behavior

Some anxiety can be helpful. During the height of the pandemic, for instance, anxiety prompted people to wash their hands, practice social distancing, and wear masks to avoid germs. Although this anxiety was overwhelming, many people still took risks they deemed reasonable such as going to the grocery store when necessary or meeting up with family after quarantining.

What sets this anxiety apart from the obsessions and compulsions that are part of OCD is the ability to connect your response to your anxiety, and feel relatively certain that you protected yourself and your family. For instance, if you washed your hands with soap and warm water after going outside, a person without OCD likely felt that their hands were clean.

When someone exhibits the type of OCD that causes obsessive thoughts of cleanliness and worries about bacteria, they may have a compulsion to wash their hands. But a compulsion will go beyond the behavior that is helpful to prevent illness and become distracting or harmful, without actually providing better protection from disease. This is because:

  • Compulsions Go Beyond What is Necessary – OCD can make it impossible to feel certain that you are safe. In the hand washing example, 30 seconds is the recommended time for washing. OCD can make you feel like you need to wash your hands for an hour under scalding water to feel clean. This is not only disabling, but can also become hazardous.
  • Compulsions Change Your Interpretation of Danger – By acting on extreme compulsion, your brain begins to believe the danger matches the response. This increases your anxiety, which causes a larger response, and creates a cycle that continues to build on itself.
  • They Get Worse Over Time – The obsessive fears caused by OCD are things we can never be certain about, such as illness. Between the need to feel certain and the increased sense of danger, compulsions must become more complicated to compensate until you do not have the time or energy for anything else.

Concern about illness is far from the only type of OCD, and the anxiety around other obsessive thoughts, ritualistic checking, and compulsions will all follow this same pattern. OCD can leave a person feeling out of control and looking for control in compulsions, even if they know their fears are unrealistic. 

Anxiety, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, is at an all time high. If you are experiencing obsessive thoughts, intense anxiety, or feeling the compulsive need to think or behave in a certain way, a psychiatrist in Dallas can help. Aware Behavioral Health can work with you to determine if you are experiencing OCD and create a customized treatment plan. Call us to learn more.

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