Seven of the differences between compulsions and obsessions

How do people with OCD live with their obsessions? Do you know how to differentiate them from compulsive behaviors? The characteristics that define this psychological condition, in fact, can be quite complex. Discover them here.

Seven of the differences between compulsions and obsessions

Last update: June 21, 2023

The differences between compulsions and obsessions outline the clinical profile of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This disorder ranks fourth among the most frequent mental disorders in the world, according to a publication in the journal, Electronic Medical Center.

OCD is a complex and sometimes serious condition, as it alters the way people think and behave. Fortunately, effective strategies are available to treat it.

The obsessive thoughts and the compulsion itself and the associated rituals are phenomena that the patient cannot control. There are different types of OCD. All involve impulsive behaviors that significantly affect the lives of sufferers. In fact, they cause high levels of distress and anxiety. Here you can learn about the particularities of each size.

OCD is a chronic disorder that can be treated through specialized therapies.

Differences between compulsions and obsessions

An OCD sufferer may experience obsessive thoughts that may or may not be accompanied by compulsions. Hiscommon for patients to experience these symptoms for a long time before the diagnosis.

Research conducted in 2021 and published in the journal, PLOS ONE says finding the right therapy can take up to 17 years. This is a long time. Hence the importance of knowing how the condition manifests itself and understanding the differences between compulsions and obsessions.

Compulsions and obsessions are mental and behavioral processes that gradually gain strength until they become chronic. Indeed, there comes a point where every aspect of the sufferer’s psychosocial life is completely altered.



1. Obsessions are mental processes

The main difference between compulsions and obsessions is that the latter are thoughts or images. They consist of irrational mental processes over which individuals have no control. Although they are aware that these thoughts are illogical and frustrating, they have no way of stopping them from occurring.

On the other hand, obsessions hinder any action and interrupt the sufferer’s daily life and ability to think clearly.

2. Compulsions are responses to obsessions.

The compulsions in OCD correspond to behavioral or mental reactions that the sufferer develops in response to the obsessions. With compulsive behavior, aim to obtain some relief from the anxiety generated by obsessive and irrational thinking.

A study conducted by the University of Cape Town (South Africa) states that those suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder try to quell their anguish with compulsive behaviors or rituals. They know these actions are excessive, but they cannot control them.

Obsessions make sufferers experience a lot of anguish and fear. They may even feel disgusted by their thoughts. To release this burden of anxiety, they develop compulsions or rituals.

Mind with many thoughts that symbolize the differences between compulsions and obsessions
OCD is a condition that is often genetic in origin. It manifests itself through obsessions and compulsions.

3. The different types of obsessions

Sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder usually exhibit more than one obsession. For example:

  • Fear of getting hurt.
  • Thinking they are a bad person.
  • Experiencing obsessive thoughts about perfection and order.
  • Believing that if they don’t pray, something bad could happen to them.
  • Fear of getting sick or getting dirty.
  • Having an inability to avoid intrusive images of unethical or unpleasant sexual practices.
  • Being obsessed with perpetrating immoral behavior. For example, touching the genitals of others, committing offenses, etc.
  • Being afraid of causing harm to other people. For example, running over someone or accidentally hitting a loved one.
  • Experiencing an intense fear of losing control. For example, give in to uncertain thoughts and end up stealing.
  • Experiencing the irrational fear of throwing away useless objects that, at some point, they believe they need.
  • Have relationship obsessions. These are related to the OCD relationship. They consist of constantly imagining and fearing that their partner is cheating on them.

4. Modalities of compulsions or rituals

The differences between compulsions and obsessions are also associated with the ways in which the compulsion manifests itself.

There is a widespread idea that OCD is characterized by classic rituals such as turning the lights on and off many times or repeatedly washing your hands. However, it should be noted that its characteristics are much broader. For example:

  • Cleaning and organizational compulsions. For example, sorting books or clothes by color.
  • Mental compulsions. Having to count numbers, make lists and create positive mental images to replace the disturbing ones, etc.
  • Compulsion control. This behavior includes a large number of ritual behaviors. For example, the sufferer makes sure that he has turned off the gas ten times, or that he takes off and puts on his coat five times before leaving the house, etc. .

5. Interrelationship differences

A key difference between compulsions and obsessions is how they are triggered. For example, obsession can lead, in many cases, to compulsive behavior, but not vice versa. In other words, a compulsion alone will not produce an irrational, obsessive thought.

Thus, an interrelationship occurs. We always start from an idea or a mental product of a mind that elaborates reality in an ever more inflexible way. In fact, a research published in Current reports of psychiatry states that OCD originates from a clear dysfunction of cognitive processes. Compulsive behavior always comes later.



6. Effects and purpose

To understand the anatomy of OCD, it helps to clarify how and why obsessions and compulsions arise.

  • An obsession has a variety of effects on the individual. It causes anxiety, a feeling of loss of control, distress and excessive worry.
  • A compulsion appears in order to alleviate the negative effect caused by obsessive thinking. However, in this attempt to reduce his anxiety, the sufferer develops equally exhausting behaviors.

7. OCD can occur without compulsions

The main feature of OCD is intrusive, usually unwanted thoughts. They are the fundamental phenomenon that governs this condition. However, an individual can suffer from OCD without it leading to compulsive behavior. An example is the so-called Pure O or purely obsessive OCD.

The OCD sufferer may be in the middle of a business meeting and find that they can’t stop thinking about standing up and insulting their colleagues. To control them, they may resort to compulsive mental behaviors. For example, trying to replace the image with something kinder.

Man in psychological therapy treating the differences between compulsions and obsessions
Exposure-based therapy with response prevention is highly effective in treating OCD.

Living with obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a chronic mental condition. However, it can be treated. This improves the quality of life of sufferers and they develop greater control over their thought processes. But the problem is that it is often accompanied by a high level of misunderstanding and a sense of shame.Also, the patient’s environment may not understand why they are unable to hold a job and perform excessive and irrational hygiene practices.

Social understanding and psychoeducation are needed to address all mental health issues. OCD is a disease with genetic and brain triggers. Nobody chooses those behaviors or thoughts.

If you identify with any of these characteristics and symptoms, don’t hesitate to seek specialized help. There are specific therapies for the treatment of OCD. For example, the Exposure Prevention Response (ERP) technique. But the first step must always be taken as soon as possible.

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All sources cited have been thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography for this article has been deemed reliable and of scholarly or scientific accuracy.


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