Obsession Vs. Compulsion

Let’s bust some myths and uncover the facts about obsession, compulsion, and OCD.

The Difference Between Obsession and Compulsion

In short, obsession involves thoughts and compulsion is about physical actions based on those thoughts; often to try and get rid of them or alleviate them in some way.

Most of us have heard of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), as well as other terms like ‘obsessive thoughts’ or ‘compulsive behaviour’. But what do these actually mean? How does one affect the other? And how are they related to OCD? Let’s take a look at each term in turn…

Obsessive Thoughts & Compulsive Behaviours

Compulsive behaviours stem from obsessive thoughts, urges, and mental images, causing upset and intrusion in a person’s day-to-day life. These obsessive thoughts range from person to person, but often centre around:

  • Constantly having doubts such as, ‘Did I lock the door/turn off the oven/switch off my hair straighteners?’
  • Thoughts about harming oneself or harming someone else.
  • Fears of germs or contamination.
  • An urge to have objects or situations in a very particular order.
  • Intrusive, upsetting images (sometimes sexual or violent).
  • Thoughts of having upset someone or having made a social taboo.

These thoughts can be overwhelming and upsetting for an individual. People with obsessive thoughts find that the only way they can relieve or satisfy these thoughts is to carry out actions, often in a ritualistic way. For example, someone who has constant obsessive thoughts about security and doubts over whether or not they have made the home secure will often check locks and windows multiple times. This is known as  compulsive behaviour. Another example of this behaviour is a person who washes their hands excessively because of their overwhelming obsessive thoughts around germs, contamination or hygiene.

Compulsive Behaviours

Sometimes obsessive thoughts become overwhelming, and a person has little control over their reaction. This is known as compulsive behaviour and is seen in people suffering from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). They simply are unable to stop carrying out the compulsive behaviours and feel driven to do them. Compulsive behaviours can become very isolating and frightening for a person, making them afraid to socialise, leave the home or live a ‘normal’ life.

Compulsive behaviours often include:

  • Excessive cleaning and washing of the body, home or objects.
  • Counting objects over and over.
  • Living by a very specific timetable, set of rules, limits or enforcing this on someone else.
  • Having to have things in a very specific order or way.

Sometimes, compulsive behaviours manifest as involuntary physical actions – or tics, as they’re more commonly known. These are completely uncontrolled and can make life very difficult for an individual. These tics could include:

  • Blinking rapidly.
  • Clearing of the throat or sniffing.
  • Repeating words or phrases.
  • Jerking, twitching or scratching.


So, what’s the link to OCD? Well, put simply, OCD is diagnosed when an individual has both obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that are affecting their daily life. It’s a cycle of fearful, intrusive thoughts and repetitive actions that takes over an individual’s life.

It takes professional help such as talking therapies (known as CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and, in some cases, medication, to treat the condition so the person can understand and learn to manage their OCD.  It’s thought that OCD affects 1 in 100 people in the UK with 50% of those falling into the ‘severe’ category*.

Learn more about OCD here.

Using The Right Language

It is really important to use the right words when describing strong feelings. It is very common to use words like obsessed when talking about positive things like football. Someone might say “might latest obsession is….” when what they mean is they really really like this thing. It can be really hard for people who are suffering from obsessive problems to hear this kind of language and it can really take away the serious nature of the issue. Using this kind of language in day to day conversations can also lead to more confusion about these common and unpleasant conditions. Finding other words to describe things we really really like is a really good idea.

Get More Help

If you suspect your teen may have obsessive thoughts and behaviours or compulsive behaviours or OCD, find our more information from the UK’s national OCD charity here.

Talk to your GP about your concerns. They can refer you to a psychological therapies service. If you need urgent assistance for yourself or for your teen, call the Samaritans on 116 123 or Childline on 0800 11 11.

*Source: Mental Health Research: https://www.mqmentalhealth.org/conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI2Zz-1N7I7wIVUNTtCh09IwjsEAAYAiAAEgLugPD_BwE


Related Posts

Download the App

Hidden strength the go – to, advice + support portal for 13 – 24 year olds designed to provide accessible and immediate support and chat-based therapy from qualified therapists to any young people who may be struggling with their mental wellbeing, completely for free.