Folded dress shirts laying neatly on a bed.
The common symptoms of OCD are experiencing obsessions and compulsions.

What Are the Different Types of OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a frighteningly common mental illness. It affects 40 million adults in the U.S. ages 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. OCD is an anxiety condition that can range from inconvenient to crippling. This article discusses symptoms, causes and treatment options surrounding the different types of OCD.

Symptoms of OCD

As the name suggests, obsessive compulsive disorder is primarily characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Though people frequently use OCD incorrectly as an adjective to mean “detail oriented” or “obsessive,” obsessions and compulsions are actually specific psychological phenomena.

What Are Obsessions?

Obsessions are repeated and intrusive thoughts or fears:

  • Fears of germs, dirt, or diseases
  • Unwanted sexual or violent thoughts
  • Thoughts of aggression or harm towards yourself or others
  • Preoccupation with order and symmetry

It’s possible to have obsessions, even intrusive ones, without having OCD. Obsessions are only half of this condition. A person with OCD can also experience compulsions that pair with their obsessions.

What Are Compulsions?

Compulsions are repetitive or ritualistic behaviors that people with OCD do to calm their obsessions. The rituals may be logically connected to the obsessions, but they do not have to be. For example, a person with OCD may compulsively clean their hands because their anxiety convinces them that if they do not, their family will be hurt or die. Some examples of compulsions:

  • Checking things like alarm clocks, locks, stoves, ovens, or light switches
  • Ordering and organizing things or making them symmetrical
  • Extensive counting
  • Cleaning and sanitizing
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What Behaviors Classify Someone as Having OCD?

Most of us will experience some sort of obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior at some point in our lives. However, this does not mean we all have OCD, For these symptoms to be considered OCD, they must:

  • Take up at least an hour per day
  • Be uncontrollable
  • Interfere with work, life, or pleasure

What Causes OCD?

Like many mental illnesses, the causes of OCD are not always clear-cut for each person. However, some causes of OCD are:

  • Genetic and hereditary factors
  • Chemical or structural abnormalities in the brain
  • Slow buildup and reinforcement of compulsive behaviors when they are associated with relief from anxiety

Ultimately, the causes of OCD are not fully known and are best determined on a case-by-case basis. In many cases, it may be impossible to know.

Types of OCD

Because OCD encompasses a wide array of behaviors, it can be split up into several subtypes.

Contamination and Cleaning

People who experience this type of OCD are preoccupied with contaminations and may be germophobic. Their obsessions will focus on things feeling dirty, impure, or contaminated. Their compulsions will be cleaning or sanitizing behaviors, often taken to the extremes. For example, a person may be so preoccupied by the presence of germs on their hands that they wash them for hours at a time.


People with hoarding OCD experience extreme anxiety when throwing items away, even useless items, like trash or expired food. Their obsessions often focus around fears that they may one day need those items or experience extreme emotional attachment to the objects they hoard.

Symmetry and Ordering

People who suffer with this type of OCD experience an irrational need for order and symmetry in objects around them or they may repeatedly think or say a sentence until it is “correct”.

While many people are a bit compulsive in their organization, for it to qualify as OCD, these behaviors must be extreme and interfere with regular life. This type of OCD may also involve irrational connections between organization and unrelated events. For example: “If I organize all my shirts by color, my mother will not die in an accident today.”

Harm and Checking

This type of OCD focuses around fear of harming others. Though people who experience this type of OCD may experience intrusive violent thoughts, they are generally not violent themselves, and their compulsions will focus around making sure things feel “safe” enough for themselves and their family. For example, a person my obsessively check that the stove is off dozens of times before leaving the house because they are worried that they may forget and cause a fire.

Obsessions Without Visible Compulsions

Some people experience OCD without external compulsions. These people may experience extreme and intrusive sexual or violent thoughts. They may perform internal rituals like reciting specific words, counting, or praying. Though the compulsive element is not externally visible, this still qualifies as OCD because compulsions are occurring.

Treatment Options for OCD

OCD in general is not curable – many people continue to experience symptoms on and off for the duration of their life. However, OCD is very treatable, and people can live perfectly normal lives with OCD.


Traditional talk therapy can be a great way for people with OCD to express their thoughts and feelings in a judgment-free space. In addition, OCD can be treated by specific therapeutic methods, like exposure-response therapy, in which patients are put into safe situations that trigger anxiety in an effort to train them to monitor and manage their anxious responses.

Relaxation and Self-Care

Though severe OCD should be treated with the help of mental health professionals, people with OCD can also help themselves by practicing relaxation methods like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing. In addition, self-care practices like maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly are a patient’s first line of mental health defense.


A psychiatrist may prescribe medication for OCD. The most common OCD medications are SSRI antidepressants (Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac). Antipsychotics (Abilify, Risperdal) may also be used, though less commonly.

Keep in Mind

OCD can be debilitating, but it is also highly manageable. By identifying the type of OCD someone suffers from and seeking help, people with this condition can get themselves started on the path to a happier, calmer life.