Harvard Mental Health Letter

Questions & answers

Q. If I have obsessions or compulsions, does that mean I have obsessive-compulsive disorder?

A. Look around and you may find many people in your neighborhood who are troubled — at least once in a while — by obsessions (persistent, intrusive, anxiety-provoking thoughts) or compulsions (irresistible urges to repeat certain behaviors). So, no, these symptoms on their own do not indicate a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Clinicians make an OCD diagnosis only when symptoms cause significant distress, are time-consuming, or interfere with work, social activities, or relationships. As with most psychiatric diagnoses, there is no clear boundary between having and not having the disorder. Although we have pretty good data about OCD's prevalence, there has been little statistical evidence available to tell us whether some symptoms of OCD are common or uncommon among those people who don't have the full disorder.

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