8 Early Signs of OCD to Take Seriously

Updated: Aug. 31, 2018

This destructive disorder can creep up on people. Familiarize yourself with the early symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder to help protect loved ones—and yourself.

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Catching OCD early

You’ve seen the exaggerated signs of OCD in TV shows and movies (think Monk or Rain Man). But there are subtle signs that people just accept as routine behaviors that are actually symptoms of OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The disorder is distressingly common: It hits about 2.2 million American adults—about 1 percent of the population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). It’s one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability. Worldwide, one in 40 adults and one in 100 children have a diagnosis of OCD, according to the World Health Organization. Yet only roughly a third of people with this disorder are getting treatment, according to the ADAA, because of the subtle nature of symptoms. Knowing these signs can help empower you to get treatment before the symptoms become unmanageable. Check out these 8 clear signs you could have OCD.

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What is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is relatively easy to understand, given the name. The obsession part is characterized by intrusive, repetitive, and unwanted thoughts. Compulsion comes in with actions or behaviors you engage in to try to control your obsessive thoughts, according to Psychology Today. These actions can give sufferers momentary relief, but the anxious thoughts usually return. Typically, the condition kicks in when sufferers are around 19 years of age. However, a third of adults first show signs in childhood; 25 percent of cases are diagnosed by age 14. This condition can be difficult to pick up in kids—parents may assume that the symptoms are a normal part of growing up, or that the behavior is part of a child’s personality. Both genders are equally likely to develop OCD.

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What causes OCD?

Having certain disorders—such as Parkinson’s disease, tumors, or schizophrenia—may raise a person’s risk, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some research indicates that there may also be a genetic link to the disorder. Certain life events can trigger OCD, such as a strep infection, a difficult birth, and even chronic insomnia. Read about these 8 surprising causes of OCD.

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Early sign: repetitive behavior

Keep an eye out for repetition, like washing hands too often, locking and unlocking doors, or hoarding unneeded items; be especially wary of behavior that you have to repeat a set number of times. Many people joke about “being OCD,” but when the behavior begins to encroach on other parts of your life, it may be a clinical sign of something deeper. Find out the 9 silent signs that you could have an anxiety disorder.

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Early sign: being rule-driven

Maintaining a rigid system that dictates your behavior is a clue that your behaviors may be rooted in OCD, according to Psychology Today. One woman I worked with was obsessive about food. She developed tendencies like counting the number of almonds she could eat. Even though she was working with a nutritionist who recommended that she follow a varied diet, she insisted on eating the same foods in the same amounts every day, for good luck.

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Early sign: you have a tough time leaving the house

Psychologist Suzanne Phillips, an author and a couples therapist, has had several patients who became trapped in their homes because of OCD. In one case, a woman couldn’t leave the house unless her counters were clean—and they were never clean enough to allow her to leave. While this behavior is clearly self-destructive, the Mayo Clinic explains, it does provide some relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause. Learn about the 9 foods that can calm anxiety (and 3 that can cause it).

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Early sign: your work suffers

Another of Phillips’s patients was a young lawyer who had to quit because he couldn’t stop rechecking his written briefs. He would spend hours working on the papers but couldn’t submit them on time. Occasionally the disorder may prove helpful: I had an OCD patient who was an attorney, and he felt that his disorder made him a better editor. He was more likely to catch mistakes that others had missed.

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Early sign: your relationship is in trouble

Phillips tells the story of a patient who was married to a man with OCD. After getting into bed each evening, he demanded that she recheck that the doors were locked and straighten all the lampshades. She saw Phillips because she wanted permission to say no to his rituals. OCD sufferers can put a lot of strain on their relationships through unreasonable requests, eccentric behavior, or refusing social engagements because they can’t leave the house. Phillips encouraged the wife to stop giving in to her husband’s demands. When he wouldn’t check the locks or straighten the lampshades on his own, his anxiety actually diminished and the couple became closer. Find out what happens to your brain when you have OCD.

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Early sign: you set aside extra time to worry

Spending an hour a day on obsessions or compulsions is a definite sign of OCD. Try timing how long you spend on worrisome behaviors to get a sense of where your behavior falls. One client I saw with OCD noticed that she started leaving extra time in the morning to complete her rituals. While this started gradually, she eventually had less time to get to work and had to take cabs instead of biking to work, which she preferred. Making more time for your worries and less time for your leisure, job, or social life may be a sign that you need help.

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Early sign: your child is unyielding

OCD can start early. One mother reported that she noticed her three-year-old was obsessed with being at the front of the line and engaged in a few counting rituals. He would obsessively count to 100 to himself. These symptoms quickly progressed, and he was treated for OCD. It can be difficult to distinguish between the quirky things kids do and symptoms of OCD. If you have a concern, check with your pediatrician or a psychologist. Check out these clear signs you’re a perfectionist.

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Early sign: not being able to stop a pattern of thought

Intrusive, unwanted thoughts are a distinct sign of OCD. According to Psychology Today, the warning signs are “repeated thoughts, images, and urges about being compulsively neat and organized; fearing germs, dirt, contamination, intruders, or violence; or imagining hurting loved ones or committing sexual acts or behaving in a way that conflicts with religious beliefs.”

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When it’s time to seek help

“If you find yourself or your loved one beginning to do things repetitively, feeling like they are taking up too much time and causing anxiety because they are not done to your specifications, or until it feels ‘just right,’ it is probably time to contact a professional,” recommends Marcia Kimeldorf, PhD, the former project manager of OCD research studies at Columbia University. Check out these 6 proven ways to cope with OCD.

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Treatments for OCD

Usually, a combination of prescription medications and therapy can help patients. Kimeldorf, a researcher who specializes in OCD, explains that the primary treatment for OCD is called exposure and response prevention. ERP helps about 80 percent of the patients who complete treatment, she says. “The basic theory is that the person confronts feared situations and resists the urge to ritualize (indulge compulsive behavior); this begins to break the associations between the stimuli and their anxiety, and between doing rituals and feeling relief.” She explains that therapists guide patients to the realization that abstaining from compulsive behavior will eventually ease their anxiety. “The treatment also helps them to correct mistaken beliefs about what will happen if they do not ritualize,” Kimeldorf says. Now read about these 9 natural remedies for OCD.