Obsession vs. Compulsion: What is the Difference and How to Manage it?

August 11, 2021

Obsessive compulsive disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder, characterized by recurring unwanted thoughts, ideas, and sensations. Approximately 1.0% of the US population, that is around 2.2 million adults in the US, are affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in any given year, according to facts and statistics by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. 


People suffering from OCD can suffer from only obsessions or only compulsions, or both. However, patients most commonly report being afflicted by the recurring ‘obsession vs. compulsion’ cyclic pattern of the illness that makes it tough to deal with. 


This article offers a detailed discussion about the general difference between obsessive and compulsive components of OCD along with remedies to manage them.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a chronic mental illness falling into the comprehensive list of identified anxiety disorders. OCD can be debilitating and has the ability to disrupt daily life. The obsessions and compulsions faced by OCD patients are different, persistent and far stronger than the compulsions and obsessions faced by healthy people. 


The incessant nature of cognitive distortions identified in OCD patients is almost impossible to ignore, often resulting in even more psychological distress if ignored, developing into an almost cyclic pattern of behaviour. People commonly name their perfectionism as OCD, however, that’s false. OCD is far more serious and impairing in reality


OCD is often associated with certain ‘themes’ or concerns for different individuals. For instance, some patients might be obsessed with a fear of germs while some others may be excessively fearful of losing control and other similar fears. 

Difference Between Obsession vs. Compulsion 

In people suffering from OCD, irrational obsessions and compulsions go hand in hand. Often, the compulsions are a reaction to the obsessions that may have been plaguing the individual’s mind, though not always. The line that separates the two often seems blurry and it can be difficult to tell where obsessions end and compulsions begin, but there are signs that make it easy to identify them. 

Obsessions in OCD

Obsessions can be simply defined as impulses; uncontained, uninvited and intrusive. They are strong enough to have an impact on your daily life and activities. Even if you are aware what you’re suffering are just baseless obsessions, the distress and anxiety that arises due to them can compel you to act in a way that you think might help eradicate these impulses and thoughts. Common OCD obsessions may include irrational fear of germs; contracting them and spreading them, incessant need to be organized or keep your belongings in order, a need to remain in control of everything, aggressive or depressive thoughts about hurting others or yourself. 

Obsessions in OCD
Obsessions in OCD


Obsessions are unpleasant and unwelcome. They could be sudden intrusive thoughts about wanting to harm your partner or hurting yourself, requiring you to physically abate these obsessions by diverting your attention to something else; for instance, counting to a hundred, tapping a certain number of times in a certain manner, or repeating a word over and over.

Compulsions in OCD

Compulsions are simply the responses or mental and physical reactions that originate due to the obsessions that obsessive-compulsive people suffer. They are called compulsions because one may feel like they have to repeat their actions again and again even when they don’t want to. While they may result in short-term relief, they can be mentally and physically exhausting and time-consuming. Common OCD compulsions can include counting and keeping track, excessive cleaning, repeating certain actions a certain number of times, following strict routines. 

Compulsions in OCD
Compulsions in OCD


Compulsion works as a tool to get rid of a person’s distress brought on by his or her intrusive thoughts. For instance, to divert your mind from the distress of contracting or spreading a disease, you may find yourself washing your hands repetitively or you may feel compelled to arrange your pens a certain way before work to maintain a semblance of control over life.

Obsessions vs. Compulsion: How to Manage Symptoms

Dealing with the constant battle between one’s obsession vs. compulsion and trying to keep them as well as stress and anxiety at bay can be tiresome and debilitating. In most cases with severe OCD, it can impair one to perform daily activities. It is also associated with problems maintaining relationships, employment, financial problems, substance use and abuse disorders, and suicidal thoughts and compulsions.

 

Luckily, there are various methods to deal with obsessive compulsive disorder to keep it from impacting daily life in a negative way. Here are some helpful ways to manage the constant obsession vs. compulsion battle and reduce anxiety:

Let Go of Shame and Guilt

People suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder report an excess in feelings of shame and guilt associated with their struggle. Many OCD patients report that they equate their intrusive thoughts to actually having acted them out or bringing them on, — the phenomenon is known as ‘thought-action fusion’. For example, some patients may feel that merely thinking that they might have a tumour can increase their chances of actually developing one; or thinking about hurting their neighbour is equal to actually doing it, hence increasing guilt.


One of the major steps to keep OCD from taking over your life is by regaining your sense of confidence in yourself by pushing out the negativity of shame and embarrassment out of your life. Hence, it is important to realize that your intrusive thoughts are just that: intrusive and unwelcome; and have nothing to do with your actions because they are out of your control. 

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a brilliant remedy for all anxiety and stress-related mental illnesses. What’s great is that it is also possibly the easiest remedy to practice and incorporate in daily life on a regular basis. Usually, therapy for OCD would include mindfulness activities like journaling, meditation, and breathing exercises to combat thought-action fusion through self-awareness, but there are also several other activities that you can include in your daily routine apart from these. 


A relaxing nap, watching a movie, taking a walk, jogging, reading and similar acts can be included in mindfulness activities to help relieve stress and anxiety caused by OCD. A study regarding mindfulness-based cognitive therapy showed promising results in diminishing the distressing symptoms of OCD in two-thirds of participants involved in the study. 

Psychotherapy 

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is the go-to remedy employed by psychotherapists to help manage symptoms of OCD, specifically introducing patients of obsessive compulsive disorder to the Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy method. ERP works by restructuring a person’s thoughts and behaviours through exposure to fears and obsessions and then allowing the patient time to confront them through means other than their usual instinctual compulsions. 


CBT on the other hand works by allowing you to recognize that your intrusive thoughts are error messages by your brain and eventually, helps you learn to respond to them differently. Both kinds of therapies have proven to be beneficial for OCD patients. Initially, it may seem like a daunting task to confront your fears but with practice and gradual understanding, OCD symptoms can be managed.

Channel Your Anxieties Elsewhere

The obsession vs. compulsion dynamic can be overwhelmingly exhausting and stressful but a little bit of effort on your part can help you effectively cope with it. Giving in to the same compulsions every time you are plagued by an intrusive thought can be damaging and feed into your anxieties, further advancing the cyclic nature of obsession vs. compulsion. 


Aside from therapy, you can conquer your compulsions by looking for new and healthy ways to channel them elsewhere. Experimenting with new hobbies and incorporating healthy lifestyle choices can be extremely helpful in keeping OCD symptoms at bay. Healthy eating, regular physical activity and other recreational activities may be included to divert your mind from your obsessions and compulsions. 



Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may be tough to deal with but it is not impossible. Keeping in mind that it doesn’t define you, restructuring your obsession vs. compulsion pattern through therapy and other remedies can ease symptoms and make your life comfortable to live with OCD. 


Mooditude features Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the gold standard of talk therapy, combined with goals, routines, guided journaling, mood tracking and clinically-developed courses into a comprehensive solution that can help you battle OCD

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