Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Explains obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
How can I help myself with OCD?
OCD can be very difficult to manage at times. Some things we might try to make us feel better can sometimes make our OCD worse.
But there are ways to manage the symptoms of OCD. And with the right support, it's possible to feel better. This page has some ideas you could try, to manage your OCD and improve your wellbeing:
- Managing intrusive thoughts and uncertainty
- Managing compulsions
- Using distraction and visualisation
- Improving your wellbeing
- Connecting with others
Managing OCD can be an ongoing process. You may find that there are times where things feel manageable and other times where it's much harder. Try to be patient with yourself.
And remember that different things work for different people at different times. If something isn't working for you or doesn't feel possible just now, try something else. Or come back to it at another time.
If you try any of the tips on this page and they start to become compulsive, read our information What if my self-care becomes compulsive?
There are still days where I struggle. I am constantly aware of my thoughts and it’s something I think about, and will have to live with everyday. But OCD doesn’t stop me from doing anything.
Try to accept intrusive thoughts
- It's understandable to want to get rid of thoughts that you find distressing or worrying. But often, the more we try to get rid of a thought, the more it comes into our mind. It can start to feel like the thought is stuck in our head, no matter what we do.
- Try to remember that intrusive thoughts are very common. Some studies have estimated that we have over 6,000 thoughts a day. And most people report that they sometimes have thoughts that bother them. Or that they find confusing, shameful or frightening.
- Try to sit with the thoughts that come into your head, rather than trying to get rid of them or make them better.
- It may help to name the thoughts. For example, you could think or say to yourself "there’s that intrusive thought again" or "here’s that thought that makes me feel scared".
- Some people find that if they exaggerate or make fun of their intrusive thoughts, it can make the thought less powerful.
- Try a grounding object. Keep a small object with you to hold and focus on when you feel bothered by your thoughts. For example, you could use a stone, a fidget toy or a piece of fabric. OCD UK sell 'just a thought' wristbands and badges to help remind you not to give meaning to every thought.
I now always try and replace my thoughts with 'I’ve just had a thought that…' and it gives it less meaning than if I think, 'What if?'.
Try not to attach meaning to every thought and feeling
- Just because we have a thought, it doesn't mean that we agree with it or that it's true. Sometimes it's just a thought.
- Try to remember that you don't need to justify or explain every thought or feeling. Sometimes we just feel a certain way, and that's ok.
- Try to avoid black and white thinking. Remember that many things can be true at one time. For example, if someone you love is upset with you, this doesn't mean that you're a bad person or that they'll stop caring about you.
To understand this, try to imagine you had the thought "I’m a bad person". It can help if you:
- Try not to argue with the thought – "I’m not a bad person because…"
- Try not to replace the thought – "No, I’m a good person"
- Don't push away or try to stop thinking about the thought
- Try not to reassure yourself "I’m not as bad as some people"
- Avoid doing things to fix the thought, like doing a kind act to prove to yourself that you're a good person
All of the things above might make you feel better in the short term. But they still mean you're paying attention to the thought.
Let the thought sit there. Try to accept that it's there and that it feels distressing. You don't need to agree with the thought. But try to accept that you can never be totally sure whether it's true or not. And try to remember that your distress won't last forever.
As it happens, I am not a violent, murderous rapist. They were just intrusive thoughts.
- Try to remember that almost nothing is certain. And that it's normal to have doubts.
- We can never be totally sure that our worries aren't true or that something bad won't happen. This can feel very upsetting and scary. But the more we try to achieve certainty, the more time we spend thinking about our doubts. This often makes us feel more anxious and uncertain.
- Accepting doubt doesn't mean something is or isn't true or that you don't care whether it's true. It just means that you're accepting that you can't be fully certain.
- Some people find it helpful to reverse the questions they're worried about. For example, rather than thinking "Am I completely sure that I’m not a bad person?", you might think, "Am I completely sure that I’m not a good person?"
- Remember that you're not responsible for everything. If you feel a great sense of responsibility, try to think of all the other parts of a situation that you have no control over.
- Focus on what you can and can't control. It may help to make a list of the things you can change, and the things you can't. Try to accept the things you have no control over.
- Remember that it's not always possible to 'follow our gut feelings' or 'trust our instincts'. This can be unhelpful for those of us with OCD. The things that make us want to act on compulsions often feel like our 'gut instinct'.
I will still occasionally have strange unwanted thoughts suddenly enter my mind but these thoughts are totally outweighed by my belief that these intrusive thoughts are simply not worth worrying about.
Identify your compulsions
Recognising your compulsions is often a key first step towards managing OCD.
Compulsions are things we do, say or think to try and make ourselves feel better. It can be hard to recognise compulsions, especially if we've been doing them for a long time or if they bring us comfort.
Anything can become compulsive. It can be hard to work out when things stop being helpful and start becoming compulsions. For example, some people have told us that they struggled in the pandemic. They said it was hard to separate things they were doing to follow guidelines, from things they were doing because of their OCD.
Some signs that something might be a compulsion include:
- It feels very urgent
- You feel the need to do it, even if it doesn't make sense
- You feel if you do it one more time, you'll feel better
- Doing it makes you feel better at first, but then you need to do it again
- You find yourself doing it more and more over time
- You feel panicked or distressed about not being able to do it
- You feel distressed or anxious while doing it
- You feel like you don't have control over whether you do it or not
- You feel a rush of relief or comfort after doing it
- You feel stuck or trapped in the action, conversation or thought
- You feel like a part of you doesn't want to do it, or you feel like you're watching yourself from outside of your body
- You feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty about doing it, but can’t stop
- You can’t explain clearly why you need to do it, either to yourself or to others
- You find yourself spending more and more time doing it
- You keep thinking it will work, and then feel frustrated and disappointed when it doesn’t
- You find yourself prioritising doing it over other things that are important to you, or it makes you act out of character or against your values
You may not feel all these things. Or there may be things you feel that aren’t listed here.
I'm telling myself I'm doing the right thing because I'm following the guidelines. But where do I draw the line?
Resist, delay or reduce compulsions
- Try to sit with distressing feelings or thoughts without doing things to make yourself feel better. It will probably feel very unpleasant at first. This feeling may last a while, but it won’t last forever. Try to focus on accepting the feeling, rather than trying to make it go away.
- If you feel the urge to do a compulsion, or if you find yourself starting to, stop. Take a breath and try to resist doing it.
- Resisting compulsions is very difficult at first. But with practice, it does get easier.
- Try to remember that giving into compulsions will only make your OCD stronger.
- Do something to distract yourself. This may help focus your attention away from the urge to do the compulsion.
- Practise exposing yourself to things you fear and sitting with the difficult feelings without doing compulsions. It might help to schedule in a time to practise. Or you may prefer to try as things come up. If possible, it's usually safer and best to do this with the support of a trained professional, especially at first. See our page on treatment for OCD.
- Remember, if you're actively exposing yourself to your fears, it's really important to also practise not doing the compulsions. If you're struggling with this or finding it's making you feel worse, it may be more helpful to stop and seek support from a professional.
- Start small. List all of the compulsions that you do. Then put them in order of the ones that you find most distressing or hardest to resist. Start by challenging the least difficult ones, and work your way up the list.
- Rather than doing a compulsion, try reacting to intrusive thoughts in a way that doesn't engage with them. For example, you could think or say to yourself, "maybe", "that could be true, who knows", or "ok, but I can’t control that".
- Try to practise challenging everyday compulsions. Even if it's not related to a distressing thought, practising resisting any compulsive urges might be helpful.
- Trust that you can cope. Difficult feelings or doubts can feel unbearable. But try to remember that you can cope and that you don't need to get rid of them to feel better.
- If it feels impossible to resist, try delaying compulsions. Rather than doing them straight away, try to sit with your feelings for a short amount of time. Next time, try waiting a little longer. It may help to set timers.
- Another option is to reduce your compulsions. This could mean doing them less, for a shorter amount of time, or in a slightly less satisfying way. Try to reduce them more and more each time.
- If you have done a compulsion, you might still be able to challenge yourself by undoing it. For example, if you need to do things an exact number of times to feel safe or complete, you could do it one more time to challenge the compulsion.
- Try to avoid replacing a compulsion with a different compulsion. For example, if you compulsively check your phone to make sure you haven't sent something accidently, try not to replace this by avoiding using your phone. This is another form of compulsion. It will have the same effect of giving you temporary reassurance, which is unlikely to be helpful in the long term.
- Make notes for yourself. Remind yourself of what has worked and not worked in the past. This could be in a journal or on your phone.
I read that the more I would try and run away from the thoughts, the worse it would get. I decided one day just to kindly allow the thoughts and to try and hold them in my awareness in a different way. Instead of reacting to them with hate, shame, and anger I noticed them with kindness and warmth.
When trying to resist compulsions, it may help to focus your attention on something else.
- There are many ways you can distract yourself. It could be doing something creative, watching a film or TV show, doing something practical or going for a walk. Different things will work at different times, so think about what might work best for you.
- Try not to wait until you feel 'ready' to distract yourself. When we're feeling distressed, the idea of distracting ourselves may feel impossible. Try making a start, even if you doubt it'll help.
- Take things slowly and try not to worry if you don't feel better at first.
- When distracting yourself, try to bring your attention to the moment. If your attention goes back to your worries, try to gently re-focus on the present.
- Try to focus on what you can see, hear, smell, taste or feel. It may help to name these things. For example, if you're watching TV, try focusing on what people are doing or saying, rather than worrying whether you’re enjoying the show.
- When doing an activity, it can help to say what you're doing out loud or in your mind. This can help focus your attention.
Just getting out of bed and having a cup of tea is enough. Battling with your head every second is hard enough without feeling remorse because you’re 'not using this time effectively'. Taking a breath is using time effectively.
Visualisation is a way of imagining different scenes and environments. Some visualisation techniques may be useful for managing OCD.
You could imagine the following:
- Your OCD is a separate person to you. Some people give their OCD a name. This may help you to separate yourself from your symptoms.
- Your OCD is an animal, monster, bully or object.
- You've put your OCD in a box or in the corner of the room. This may act as a reminder that you don't need to pay attention to it.
- Yourself without OCD. Try to think about how you might react to intrusive thoughts.
- Your intrusive thoughts are leaves in the wind. Or they're spam emails that you can notice but not pay much attention to.
Eddy is my OCD. I have named my OCD because I need to talk to him.
Look after yourself
- Think about what might make your OCD worse. This could include stress, lack of sleep, big changes, times of uncertainty, anxiety, hormones, or difficult events in the news. Positive things, such as big events or feeling happy may also trigger intrusive thoughts about something going wrong. Knowing what might make your OCD worse could help you to prepare for difficult times.
- Try a relaxation technique. Relaxation can help you look after your wellbeing when you're feeling stressed, anxious or busy. Find out more about relaxation.
- Try mindfulness. Mindfulness can help to reduce stress and anxiety. It isn't right for everyone. But for some people, it can be helpful as part of managing OCD. Learn more about mindfulness.
- Try to improve your sleep. Sleep can give you the energy to cope with difficult feelings and experiences. Read our tips to improve your sleep.
- Think about your diet. What we eat can affect how we feel, including our mood and energy levels. Read more about food and mental health.
- Try to do some physical activity. Any kind of physical activity can help our mental health. It's important to find something that works for you. Visit our pages about physical activity and mental health to find out more, including activities you could try.
- Spend time in nature. This can improve our wellbeing. See our information about nature and mental health to learn more, including different ideas for being in nature.
I know stress is my trigger and I know how dangerously easily I can get stressed. From little things like breakfast to bigger things like weekends away, there are a million thoughts and factors to stress about. It is a frustrating cycle which ultimately means I can get stressed about getting stressed.
Be kind to yourself
- Celebrate your wins, no matter how small. It may help to keep a journal where you record things that you're proud of or grateful for.
- Be patient with yourself. It might feel impossible at first, but the more you practise, the more you may find you can manage your OCD.
- Accept that setbacks happen. Take things one step at a time. You may have times where you can manage your symptoms better than at other times. Having more difficult times doesn't mean you’ve failed or gone backwards. Ups and downs are a normal part of managing OCD.
- Treat yourself with compassion. Managing OCD can be really difficult. Sometimes this might mean that you have less energy or time for other things in your life. It's ok to prioritise your mental health and do things at your own pace.
- Forgive yourself. OCD can sometimes lead to us doing or saying things that we regret. Or things that go against our values. Try to remember that we all make mistakes, especially when we're struggling with our mental health. It's ok to forgive yourself and move forward.
- Write a compassionate letter to yourself. You could acknowledge how distressing your thoughts and feelings are. But also remind yourself that you can get through this and manage your OCD.
- Focus on your values. Sometimes it can feel like OCD defines us as a person. But this isn't true. Try to focus on the things that matter to you. This could be your values, interests, opinions or passions. It's ok if we have doubts about our values, remember that nothing is ever completely certain or perfect.
My OCD wants me to believe I'm a terrible person who can't do anything right. That makes it hard to do nice things for myself. But something simple, like cuddling my cat or listening to music, can make me feel calmer.
Take care online
- Be mindful around compulsive behaviour online. This could include spending lots of time searching for information online. Or constantly checking your phone. Or it might involve arguing with people or asking people for reassurance on social media.
- Comments we read online can trigger our doubts and fears. Try to remember that things are often more complicated than they seem online.
- Take regular breaks from the internet if you can.
- If there's content that you find distressing, or that you use in a compulsive way, try to stop or reduce the time you spend on it.
- Try to be purposeful about your time online. Ask yourself, are you checking your phone or doing an internet search because you need to? Or is it to reassure yourself or avoid a difficult feeling?
- See our pages on looking after your mental health online for more information.
I would spend about 2-4 hours a day checking my phone and laptop… I had to shut my laptop 'correctly' and place it down on my shelf 'correctly' or again, I believed it would cause the laptop to post all sorts of humiliating things that'd ruin my life. If I wasn’t satisfied I would turn my laptop back on, and start the whole process again.
Connect with those around you
You might worry that people won't understand OCD. And it can feel scary to put some of your experiences into words. But talking about your OCD may help you feel less lonely and more able to cope.
- Talk to someone you trust about your OCD. Find a quiet space to talk where you won't be interrupted. You could show them this information to help them understand. Some people find it helpful to write their feelings down and then talk about this together.
- Tell people what you need from them. People may want to help but not know how. Try to be as open as you can about what you need. This might include helping you to resist compulsions, helping to distract you, or giving you some time to yourself. It may help to talk about this at a time when you're feeling well, so that you're prepared for more difficult times.
- Try to avoid asking for reassurance again and again. Asking for reassurance from others is a very common compulsion. It can be very difficult to resist in the moment, especially if you feel distressed. Instead of asking them for reassurance, try sharing that you're struggling with your OCD right now. Ask them to help distract you. If you can't resist asking them for reassurance, you could start by saying "This could be OCD, but…". This lets them know that it might be OCD.
- Develop code words or signs with people close to you. For example, you could have a name for your OCD that you both use. It may be easier to use this word in the moment, rather than trying to explain how you're feeling.
- Spend time with others. You might not feel ready to talk openly about your OCD yet. But spending more time with friends and family may help you feel more comfortable around them. And in time, more able to share your experiences.
I cried for the whole day, so scared that no one could help me. My boyfriend had to come home from work and we drove to the countryside for a walk to distract me, which helped a little.
Try peer support
Making connections with people with similar or shared experiences can be helpful. You could try talking to other people who have OCD to share your feelings, experiences and ideas for looking after yourself. For example, you could:
- Try an online peer support community, such as Mind’s Side by Side, OCD-UK's online forums or OCD Action's online forums.
- Find support through social media.
- Find a local support group through an organisation such as OCD Action, OCD-UK and Top UK.
- Check out our tips on peer support.
If you're seeking peer support online, it's important to look after your wellbeing. We have more information about looking after your mental health online.
I remember wishing I could just talk to someone who could tell me they had felt what I was feeling.
Try self-help resources
Self-help resources for OCD are designed to help you develop coping strategies. They're often based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Make sure any resources you use are from a trusted organisation.
It is not easy. OCD is the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with. But with the right help, I believe anything is possible. Please don't hesitate to seek help, wherever from.
Anything can become compulsive. This could include any of the self-care tips listed on this page.
For example, you may start to use peer support in a compulsive way to reassure yourself that you definitely have OCD. Or you may become compulsive about things like exercise or sleep. This can feel very frustrating and confusing.
If you're worried this may be happening, try to use the techniques above to resist the compulsions. Or try to set boundaries with yourself. For example, you may limit the time you spend on a self-care activity. Or it may help to try something different for a while.
If you're struggling, it may be better to seek support from your GP or a therapist if you can.
This information was published in October 2023. We will revise it in 2026.
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