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OCD symptoms: Signs of OCD and tips for treatment

Millions of people have OCD, yet many don’t understand OCD symptoms and how OCD is treated.

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November 11, 2021
6 min read

An estimated 7 million Europeans struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Whether you have been diagnosed with OCD, are curious if you have OCD symptoms, or know someone with OCD, this guide will walk you through an OCD symptoms checklist and what you need to know about OCD treatment, OCD medication, and OCD nutrition and supplements.

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OCD definition: what are the symptoms of OCD?

Every single one of us may occasionally experience distressing, negative thoughts, or have certain routines we enjoy. Yet for some people, these thoughts or repeated behaviours begin to interfere with their daily lives. 

This is known as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s a chronic mental health condition where you struggle with rigid, habitual behaviours, or never-ending OCD intrusive thoughts about a specific thing or situation. 

Example behaviours might include:

  • Washing your hands repeatedly.

  • Checking, double-checking or even triple-checking things like whether your front door is locked or not.

  • Repeating words in your head.

  • Ordering, arranging, or counting things constantly.

And most important is what occurs if you aren’t able to carry out your compulsive behaviours.

“Not performing the behaviours commonly causes great distress,” explains the American Psychiatric Association. “Many people with OCD know or suspect their obsessions are not realistic; others may think they could be true (known as limited insight). Even if they know their obsessions are not realistic, people with OCD have difficulty disengaging from the obsessive thoughts or stopping the compulsive actions.”

How common is OCD? 

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but global estimates rank OCD as one of the top 10 most disabling illnesses that lead to poorer quality of life.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization puts OCD and other anxiety disorders as the #6 biggest contributor to health loss in the world.

Is OCD genetic? OCD risk factors and what causes OCD

While the exact cause of OCD continues to evade researchers, studies have found that OCD can run in families. This supports the hypothesis that OCD may be genetic.

Other potential risk factors or causes of OCD include:

  • Your levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

  • Your brain’s ability to respond to neurotransmitters.

  • Autoimmune issues, because some OCD cases appear in people after they've been infected with Lyme disease, strep, some forms of the flu, etc.

  • Trauma and stress, with some research suggesting that OCD may develop in people as a way to cope with past or current life difficulties.

Understanding obsessions and compulsions in OCD

When you have OCD, you experience compulsions and/or obsessions. These often get confused, but they aren’t the same thing.

  • Compulsions are mental actions or physical actions that you repeatedly do to ease the stress or pain caused by obsessive thoughts

  • Obsessions are recurring thoughts or mental images that cause you a sense of unease, anxiety, stress, fear, etc.

Examples of OCD compulsions and symptoms of OCD

All of us follow routines. For instance, you might have a set of specific actions you do every morning to get your children ready for school. Or you may have a bedtime routine that helps you relax and unwind.

Compulsions are more than simple, repeated habits and routines. They’re actions that begin to dominate your thoughts and your day, and they often begin to be a regular ritual that you “have” to do.

Examples of compulsions include:

  • Washing your hands repeatedly.

  • Having to do a specific cleaning routine (this is known as OCD cleaning), such as wiping the kitchen counter exactly 20 times before each meal.

  • Monitoring your heart rate or blood pressure repeatedly.

  • Standing up, sitting down, pacing, or other physical movements.

  • Tapping your fingers or foot.

Examples of OCD obsessions

We all occasionally worry about things in our lives. Obsessions take it to another level, where these worries and anxious thoughts completely overwhelm you and are all you’re able to focus on.

Obsessions typically take the form of anxiety surrounding specific areas of your lifestyle or worldview, such as:

  • Intense perfectionism.

  • Fears about contamination (this is known as contamination OCD), such as dirt or germs.

  • Attempting to control everything in your life.

  • Thoughts of harm, specifically that something you’ll do or say will cause harm to others.

  • Unwanted sexual thoughts, which are often distressing or alarming.

  • Religious, spiritual, or superstitious thoughts.

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Can you cure OCD? OCD treatment and OCD medication

There are multiple ways for people to manage and treat OCD. However, every person and every circumstance is unique. 

If you or someone you know experiences OCD or any other chronic mental health condition, it’s important to always seek advice and guidance from a medical professional. In the UK, you can find a psychological therapies service in your area or talk directly to your personal doctor.

OCD medication

There are many medications that your doctor may prescribe to help with OCD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one of the most commonly used approaches. 

These medications change the neurotransmitter balance in your brain and may help to reduce compulsions and obsessions within 90 days.

OCD therapy

Talking to a therapist can help you to better identify what you’re thinking and feeling, and begin to put some distance between yourself and your actions so you can better moderate your thoughts and behaviours.

For OCD, there are two specific forms of therapy that have been shown to be effective:

  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP): You’re exposed to your OCD triggers and work with a therapist to lower your response to those triggers.

  • Cognitive therapy: You identify and reevaluate your thoughts and beliefs, which in turn helps you to change compulsive behaviours.


OCD is closely linked with your brain health and your brain’s chemical balance. So providing your brain with optimal nutrition may play a role in reducing your OCD risks and helping to manage your OCD symptoms.

Avoid foods and substances that are known to increase OCD and anxiety:

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine

  • Excess sugar

You may also want to focus on a diet that optimises brain foods, such as lean proteins, fatty fish, nuts, and complex carbohydrates. 

Not only do these foods directly fuel your brain and support your mental health, but they also help to avoid the blood sugar highs and lows that can sometimes influence your brain’s neurotransmitter levels. 

Finally, researchers have been investigating if specific vitamins and minerals may help to boost your brain health and reduce OCD. These include:

  • Vitamin D 

  • Vitamin B12 

  • Folic acid 

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