What's it Like to Live with OCD?

What's it Like to Live with OCD?
Julia Marquez Arrico

Written and verified by the psychologist Julia Marquez Arrico.

Last update: 13 April, 2024

Have you ever thought about what it’s like to be obsessed with order, cleanliness, and following certain rules? Does it happen to you? Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, has two main components – obsessions that invade the person’s mind, and compulsions aimed at reducing the distress caused by the obsession.

The cycle between an obsession appearing and a compulsion developing defines the lives of people with OCD. They deal with a high level of suffering and anxiety, feel misunderstood, and spend a lot of their time warding off obsessions using compulsive rituals. In this article we explain what their day-to-day life is like and the kind of thoughts, emotions, and fears they have.

The cycle between an obsession appearing and a compulsion developing defines the lives of people with OCD.

Anxiety is a significant component of OCD

People with OCD live with so much anxiety. It follows them like a shadow. Why? Because anxiety, and the need to avoid it, is ultimately what motivates most of their behaviors. When an obsession arises, their anxiety increases. If they’re not able to perform the compulsive ritual, the anxiety grows and grows, and then fear is added into the mix.

For example, for someone whose obsession is having clean hands, they feel almost no anxiety while washing their hands. But who can spend their entire day with their hands under the faucet? Whose skin can bear that much contact with soap?

woman with OCD washing her hands

Imagine that person using public transport, stepping onto a subway car and thinking about all the germs on everything they’ve touched. Because they’re in a place where they can’t perform the compulsive behavior, they’ll feel a lot of anxiety, and it will only keep increasing with every minute they pass without washing their hands.

It’s easy to see how limited their capacity is to have a normal routine. People with OCD go to extremes to avoid situations where they can’t perform their compulsion, or that will expose them to their obsession (in this case, anyplace that’s dirty). As a result, their life will be limited to their home, places that are only a short distance away, a small circle of friends, and little to no social activity.

Fear of your own thoughts

People with OCD are afraid of their own minds. They fear that thinking about something will increase the chances of it happening. In addition, people with OCD create rules and norms about what they can and can’t think about, and feel as though if they don’t follow them, something terrible will happen. In these cases, the basic emotion they feel is fear, and the compulsive ritual is an unsuccessful strategy that perpetuates the fear.

It’s impossible to have total control over your thoughts. Trying not to think about a pink elephant will make you think about nothing but the pink elephant. People with OCD have the same thoughts as everyone else, but they confront them in a way that only makes them more intense.

As a rule of human psychological, the more you try to avoid something, the more present it is.

People with OCD might want to completely eliminate everything in their minds that provokes fear. As this is impossible, they become afraid of their own minds. People with OCD are afraid of not being able to control their thoughts. They want to think only pleasant things, but they fail in all their attempts because it’s an impossible feat.

upset man

Thus, people with OCD are always fixated on what their minds are saying by trying to control their thoughts using ineffective strategies. When they can’t do this, their anxiety rises and turns into fear, and it feels like only the compulsive ritual will bring them back to their comfort zone. They live like prisoners of their own minds, unable to verify that nothing bad will happen if they don’t perform the ritual, and live every day trying to control the uncontrollable.

If you know someone with OCD, it’s important not to try  to  rationalize with them. They already know that chances are the thing they fear and anticipate won’t happen. In other words, they’re not psychotic or out of touch with reality. They know that they’re exaggerating their ability to control things, but their anxiety and fear are powerful enough to push them into a cycle that they can’t break.

The best thing you can do is encourage them to go to a psychologist who specializes in OCD or anxiety disorders. You can help them find one, and if they trust you enough, you can even go to the first session with them. OCD can be incredibly debilitating, but there are therapeutic strategies that have proven effective in reducing its negative impact on the daily lives of those who suffer from it.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.