What Does OCD Feel Like?

On occasion, it’s normal to go check the front door to make sure you locked it. It’s also normal to worry sometimes that you’ve been exposed to germs or a virus. And you may have had an unpleasant, violent thought once in a while. However, when you have OCD your brain gets stuck on a certain thought or urge like a needle getting stuck on an old record. What does OCD feel like? OCD feels like being stuck in a continuous cycle of obsessions, compulsions, and repetition.

Even though most adults with OCD realize that what they’re doing doesn’t make sense, some adults and most children don’t recognize that their behavior is out of the ordinary.

What Is OCD?

OCD stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and it’s an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations (obsessions) that make them feel compelled to do something repeatedly (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors like hand washing, checking on things, or cleaning can substantially interfere with a person’s daily life.


So, what does OCD feel like? When you have OCD you may have to check the door 23 times to make sure it’s really locked because you are fearful that someone may get in. Maybe you have to wash your hands until they’re sore because you’re so afraid of disease. The person with OCD gets no pleasure from performing these activities repeatedly. But the repetition provides some temporary relief from the anxiety that is caused by the obsessive thoughts.

Compulsions and Obsessions

What are Obsessive Thoughts?

Obsessive thoughts are involuntary thoughts, images, or impulses that occur over and over in your mind. These thoughts that you aren’t trying to have, but you can’t stop them. These thoughts are usually distracting and unsettling. Common obsessive thoughts include:

  • Fear of being infected by germs or contaminated by dirt or contaminating others
  • Fear of losing control of yourself and hurting yourself or other people
  • Intrusive violent or sexually explicit thoughts and images
  • Exaggerated attention to moral or religious thoughts
  • Fear of losing what you have or not having what you need
  • Symmetry and order–the idea that everything must line up or be arranged perfectly
  • Superstitions and excessive attention to something thought of as lucky or unlucky


Compulsions are behaviors or rituals that you are compelled to act on over and over again. They are usually performed as a way to make the obsessions go away. So, what does OCD feel like in terms of compulsions? 

For a person with a fear of germs or contamination, extensive cleaning rituals may be needed to make the obsession go away. Nevertheless, the relief doesn’t last and the obsessive thoughts usually come back even stronger. Then the compulsive behaviors and rituals end up causing even more anxiety because they become more time-consuming and immediate. That’s the vicious cycle of OCD. And that’s what it feels like. 

Common compulsions include:

  • Repeatedly double-checking things such as locks, appliances, and switches
  • Continually checking on loved ones to see that they’re alright
  • Counting, tapping, repeating certain words, or doing other apparently senseless things to reduce anxiety
  • Spending an excessive amount of time cleaning or washing
  • Constantly arranging or putting things “in order”
  • Excessive praying or participating in rituals triggered by religious fear
  • Gathering worthless items like old newspapers or empty carry-out containers

Tic Disorder

Some people with OCD may also have a tic disorder. Motor tics are brief, sudden, repetitive movements. It may be: 

  • Eye blinking and other eye movements
  • Facial grimacing
  • Shoulder shrugging
  • Head or shoulder jerking 

Common vocal tics include: 

  • Repetitive throat clearing 
  • Sniffing 
  • Grunting sounds

Types of OCD

There are many types of OCD. In fact, OCD can reveal itself in hundreds of different ways. However, for most people, OCD centers around one or multiple themes. The most common themes are:

  • Perfectionism
  • Contamination
  • Fear of harming oneself or others

Besides these themes, OCD can focus on subjects or fears and it tends to fixate on what people care about most. This can make the symptoms of OCD even more distressing. For example, if a person values being good and honest above anything else, that person might have obsessions and compulsions around the fear of having lied to someone. This is a subtype called, “moral or scrupulosity OCD.”

OCD can also focus on a person’s relationships and cause that person to experience thoughts doubting one or more relationships that are important to them. This subtype is called, “relationship OCD.”

What Causes OCD?

It is not completely understood what the causes of OCD are at this time. But there are several theories such as:

  • Genetics – Studies with twins and families have shown that people with first-degree relatives (sibling, parent, child) who have OCD are at a higher risk for developing it themselves. The risk is increased if the relative developed OCD as a child or teen. 
  • Structure and Functioning of the Brain – Imaging studies show differences in the frontal cortex and subcortical structures of the brain in people with OCD. It appears that there is a connection between the symptoms and abnormalities in certain areas of the brain and the development of OCD. Unfortunately, that connection is not clear at this time. 
  • Learned Behaviors – Some researchers believe that compulsions are learned behaviors that become repetitive when they become linked with the relief of anxiety.
  • Distorted Beliefs – Perverted or distorted beliefs may strengthen and help maintain symptoms of OCD.

Risk Factors for OCD

Factors that could increase the risk of developing or triggering OCD include:

  • Family history – Having parents or other family members with OCD can increase your risk of developing it yourself.
  • Stressful life events – People who have experienced traumatic or stressful events may have an increased risk of developing OCD. This reaction may, for some reason, trigger the intrusive thoughts, rituals, and emotional upset that is typical of OCD.
  • Other mental health disorders – OCD may be related to other mental disorders. This includes:
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Tic disorders
  • Substance abuse

Complications From OCD

Complications that may result from OCD might include:

  • Development of substance use disorders
  • Excessive time spent in ritualistic behaviors
  • Health issues such as contact dermatitis from washing hands frequently
  • Problems with attending work, school, and social activities
  • Suicidal thoughts and behavior

OCD and Substance Abuse

Symptoms of OCD may ease over time, come and go, or they may get worse. Many people with OCD try to treat themselves by avoiding situations that trigger their obsessions or using alcohol or drugs to calm their anxieties and stifle the intensity of their obsessions and the urgency of their compulsions, even temporarily.

After a while, the amount of relief, as well as the duration of the relief of OCD diminishes. Then, individuals find themselves still fighting the crippling symptoms of OCD with the challenges of addiction as well. Studies have found that 30% of people with OCD have a higher rate of substance use disorders (SUDs) than the general population. With OCD, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and OCD 

We know that alcohol is appealing to a lot of people for many different reasons. The appeal mostly comes from the feeling of happiness, relaxation, and giddiness that is felt when alcohol acts on the brain. But for the people who have OCD, the elevated mood and the calming sensation that comes when drinking alcohol are a welcome break from the intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors that often overwhelm them. That relief though, unfortunately, can often end up in more severe OCD symptoms.

What does OCD feel like when the symptoms are severe? Because people experience OCD at different levels, it’s hard to say exactly what severe symptoms of OCD are. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms that are considered time-consuming and cause substantial impairment in “social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” are typical of OCD. Just think though, if the typical standard symptoms of OCD are bad, then drinking alcohol while suffering from OCD will likely only make the negative effects of the disorder worse.

Why Does Alcohol Make OCD Symptoms Worse?

What, then, is the reason that alcohol tends to make OCD symptoms worse? The answer seems to be found in the structure and hormonal differences in the brains of people with OCD versus non-OCD brains. That is where the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) come in. 

The neurotransmitter, serotonin, is a natural mood stabilizer. When it is at healthy levels, it maintains a sense of well-being, focus, and emotional stability. If the levels are unhealthy, it causes symptoms such as depression or anxiety. 

Alcohol is known to increase serotonin production in the brain. That’s what makes people who drink feel relaxed and giddy. That’s also how alcohol relieves symptoms of OCD in people, making them feel more calm after just one drink.  

Unfortunately, the alcohol that one drinks will eventually wear off. Thus, the relief that alcohol provides to the symptoms of OCD are short-term relief. This means that when the effects of alcohol wear off, any symptoms of OCD return. Frequently, the serotonin levels in the brain drop below the level they were at before consuming the alcohol, resulting in more severe symptoms.


The more severe the symptoms of OCD, the more the desire to make them go away by consuming alcohol or another substance that may give some relief. This leads to the need for more substance use. This is a dependence that leads to addiction. 

Addiction is a brain disease that is a complicated disorder that is displayed by compulsive use of a substance in spite of the eventual harmful results. People with substance use disorders are fixated on using certain substances to the point where they rule their lives. Such people also keep using alcohol or drugs even when it has become obvious that they are causing problems in their lives.

Dual Diagnosis

When an individual has a mental disorder and a substance use disorder at the same time, it is referred to as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. This is a common occurrence. Thus, more than half of the people with serious mental disorders also suffer from SUDs. 

The problem is that it is often difficult to find treatment for someone who has a dual diagnosis. Many treatment programs are not prepared to treat both disorders within a dual diagnosis. As a result, people with co-occurring disorders may be bounced from one program to another by single-diagnosis programs.

Treating OCD and Addiction

The standard of care for most clinicians once upon a time when it came to treating co-occurring addiction and OCD was to treat the substance use disorder first and then the mental disorder. But a study that looked at treating OCD and substance use disorders at the same time reported positive results. 

These positive results include:

  • reducing the severity of OCD symptoms 
  • longer duration in treatment
  • higher abstinence rates than the usual protocol of treating one disorder within a dual diagnosis and then the other. 

Successful Treatment of Such Co-Occurring Disorders

For dual diagnosis treatment to be successful, one needs to make sure that he or she is treated with the proper forms of treatment therapy. Some common forms of therapy used to treat co-occurring addiction and OCD include:


Exposure Response Therapy (ERP)

ERP is is a type of behavioral therapy that subjects an individual to situations that prompt obsessions and the torment that follows. This therapy helps people learn to prevent their compulsive responses to situations. 

The goal is to become free from the obsessive-compulsive cycle. Thus ERP therapy and has been found to be effective for OCD.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This type of therapy helps people identify negative or inaccurate thinking patterns and how they affect their behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has also been found to be an effective treatment for SUDs.


Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SRIs)

SRIs are a common starting medication for OCD. It is typically used to treat depression and can take up to 3 months before taking effect. Currently, there aren’t any other medications specifically for OCD.

SUD Medications

The medications used to treat SUDS are specific for the abused substance. A medication may help with alcohol withdrawal but not marijuana. Another may help with opioid withdrawal and cravings but not cocaine, etc.

What is Your OCD Experience?

Did you recognize yourself or someone you care about in the information above? Do you know that your OCD thoughts aren’t real? It’s possible you know they aren’t real but they feel like very real possibilities. Are you trying to find relief from OCD in the use of drugs or alcohol? This is common and can be treated. 

You don’t have to go through life struggling with OCD. At Owl’s Nest Recovery, we DO treat co-occurring conditions such as OCD and addiction. You can find compassionate, understanding treatment for both conditions within a dual diagnosis in the same facility.

We will create a program specifically to address your needs because we know that everybody is unique with different issues. Don’t wait any longer to get on with your life. Contact us today.


The Owls Nest


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