Understanding OCD and Cleaning (2023)

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You like your kitchen sink to shine, and your stove can never be clean enough. Does that mean you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Answering that question requires a deeper look into what OCD is — and why some people with OCD are compelled to clean.

The relationship between OCD and cleaning hinges on obsession (recurrent, intrusive thoughts) and compulsion (repeated behaviors or actions).

Obsessions and compulsions intertwine in OCD, and they can drive an overwhelming desire to repeatedly clean things.

The new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is an authoritative guide to psychological conditions. It describes OCD as a disorder that causes people to experience distressing thoughts and mental images that won’t go away.

In response to these unwanted thoughts, people with OCD may feel an intense urge to repeat certain actions. The actions may be physical behaviors (such as arranging objects in a particular order) or mental ones (like praying in a particular way).

Some people feel that completing these actions will neutralize a threat, make an obsessive thought stop, or relieve the anxiety that unwanted thoughts create.

DSM-5 emphasizes that compulsive acts can take up a lot of time. They can disrupt a person’s social, academic, or professional life. The need to precisely perform rituals and compulsive acts can cause serious anxiety.

OCD, then, is much more than a desire to work or live in a clean environment or a preference for neatness. It involves a sometimes debilitating and distressing need to clean and reclean specific areas or items.

Although DSM-5 doesn’t list subtypes of OCD, some researchers group obsessions and compulsions into “symptom dimensions.” These clusters of symptoms share similar anxieties and behavior patterns.

Here’s a brief look at the symptom dimensions as currently described in scientific literature:

(Video) Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Contamination and cleaning

Some people have an extreme fear of becoming contaminated by germs, bodily fluids, or other substances — including abstract contaminants like evil or bad luck. People may even fear that they’re contaminating others.

An obsession with contamination can lead to a cleaning compulsion. People may believe that by cleaning objects or spaces in a specific order or with a particular frequency, they can avoid or recover from contamination or infection.

Symmetry and ordering

Some people become preoccupied with arranging objects in a certain order, often because of a kind of magical thinking or magical ideation. For example, individuals with OCD may think, “If I don’t line up my toiletries exactly this far apart, someone is going to harm me today, or if I clean my sink five times this morning, my brother won’t get sick today.”

Researchers have found that people with symmetry obsession and an ordering compulsion often have trouble expressing anger in healthy ways and may have a personal history of trauma.

Doubt about harm and checking

Some people have intrusive thoughts and fears about harming others or being harmed themselves. An excessive dread of being responsible for harm can lead to compulsive checking behaviors — for example, repeatedly making sure you’ve turned off the stove or an iron.

People affected by checking compulsions describe a feeling of incompleteness unless they perform certain rituals or behaviors. Other common compulsions include repeating mantras, prayers, or safety words to ward off danger or reduce anxiety.

Similar to symmetry and order compulsions, checking compulsions have been associated with anger and trauma.

Unacceptable thoughts and mental rituals

Some people experience frequent intrusive thoughts about things that violate their own sense of morality and goodness. Often, these unwanted thoughts involve sex, violence, or religious images.

Although people with this symptom cluster generally have no history of violence, they spend a lot of time and energy trying to suppress or erase these thoughts. Trying to squelch the thoughts can lead to even more anxiety, which tends to produce more unwanted thoughts — resulting in an unhealthy cycle.

Two of these symptom dimensions have a clear link to cleaning tasks: contamination and cleaning as well as symmetry and ordering.

You can’t prevent OCD, though doctors say an early diagnosis and intervention may mean you spend less time dealing with the difficulties this disorder can present.

About 2 percent of the general population has OCD. The disorder tends to appear at an earlier age in males. By midlife, though, more women than men have symptoms of OCD.

(Video) Obsessive-Compulsive Cleaners & How to Cope with OCD

Here’s what we know about the risk factors, causes, and triggers of this disorder.


Researchers continue to explore the influence of genetics on whether someone develops OCD.

As of now, scientists know that if your parent or sibling has OCD, you’re more likely to develop the condition. Some studies have found that the symptom dimensions involving OCD cleaning and ordering are especially likely to run in families.

Brain structure

Researchers are finding differences in the brain structures of people with OCD, along with differences in how their brain functions.

For example, one 2017 study found that in people with OCD, there’s greater connectivity and activity in parts of the brain associated with habit formation and in parts that process emotions — especially fear.

Brain scans also reveal differences in estrogen receptors and in the amount of white and gray matter in the brains of people with the contamination and cleaning symptom dimensions.

Understanding differences in brain structures is important because it may point to new directions for treating the condition.


Behavioral researchers have long known that stress and trauma are associated with a higher risk of developing OCD.

For example, 2015 study involving 22,084 Swedish twins indicates that two kinds of childhood trauma are particularly likely to lead to symptoms of OCD: abuse and family disruption.

OCD symptoms include not only obsessions and compulsions, but significant anxiety as well. You may feel stressed in circumstances where you feel out of control or uncertain.

If you have OCD and contamination or cleaning are important to you, you may notice that you:

  • feel disgust or fear over certain objects or substances, including dirt, illness, body secretions, trash, or chemicals
  • believe you or others can be contaminated by magical or spiritual means — such as by saying certain names or numbers
  • have a strong urge to wash your hands or shower frequently
  • use a very specific process or ritual for washing yourself or your surroundings
  • change clothes several times a day
  • avoid places or people that may have been infected
  • conduct precise decontaminating rituals
  • refuse to allow others into your safe spaces
  • damage your skin or body through excessive cleaning

If you have OCD and it’s important for you to keep things symmetrical or arranged in a precise order, you may notice that you:

  • experience serious anxiety if certain things are not arranged “just right”
  • feel an urge to repeat what happens to one side of your body on the other side of your body
  • fear that if something is unbalanced or uneven, a catastrophe could happen
  • perform touching or tapping rituals
  • count things habitually

How is OCD diagnosed?

(Video) OCC Cleaners Share Their Cleaning Routines! | Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners

A doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist can diagnose your condition by interviewing you about your thought and behavior patterns or by asking you about symptoms listed in DSM-5.

A physical examination could help your doctor determine whether an underlying health condition is causing your symptoms.

OCD is well researched. Doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists have found a number of treatments that can decrease your symptoms and improve your daily functioning.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for many people dealing with OCD.

In a CBT session, you meet with a therapist who can help you decrease your anxiety by identifying thought patterns that distort your view of reality and cause stress. Your therapist can then help you learn to restructure these thoughts in productive ways.

Studies have shown that CBT strengthens connections throughout your brain, especially in areas that deal with your ability to control your thinking and balance your emotions.

Online therapy options

Read our review of the best online therapy options to find the right fit for you.

Exposure and response prevention

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is another type of therapy known to be effective in treating OCD.

In ERP, you and your therapist work together to identify external and internal triggers that cause you stress and make you want to behave compulsively.

You also describe your obsessive thoughts and your compulsive behaviors to your therapist. You explain what you fear will happen if you don’t follow through with a behavior or rituals.

Your therapist then helps you practice gradually facing stressful situations — both in your imagination and in real life — without using your compulsions.

(Video) Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) - causes, symptoms & pathology


Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant to reduce your OCD symptoms. Some of the more common medications prescribed for OCD are:

  • Anafranil
  • Fluvoxamine
  • Paxil
  • Prozac
  • Zoloft

If you take one of these medications to treat OCD, it’s important to talk to your doctor before you change your dose.

You shouldn’t stop taking your medication suddenly, because in some cases it can cause:

  • a relapse of your symptoms
  • serious changes in your mood
  • an increased risk of suicidal thoughts

Deep brain stimulation

Your doctor may recommend deep brain stimulation (DBS) if more conservative treatment methods aren’t working for you.

During DBS, doctors implant electrodes in targeted areas of your brain. The electrodes produce electrical pulses that may help change your thoughts and behaviors.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is another approach to consider if other treatments aren’t helping you.

During TMS, a doctor places an electromagnetic coil on your head. Magnetic fields interact with nerve cells in your brain in an attempt to lessen your OCD symptoms.

If you have OCD and a cleaning or ordering compulsion, your symptoms can be treated. There’s a good outlook for people who seek treatment for their OCD.

The best outcomes happen when people are diagnosed early and start a robust treatment program right away.

Sometimes OCD goes into remission on its own, especially if it initially appears during childhood. Other times people need long-term treatment to keep symptoms in check.

Being a perfectionist about cleaning doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD. Individuals with OCD experience persistent intrusive thoughts and a compulsion to carry out certain ritualistic behaviors.

OCD produces serious anxiety. Compulsive cleaning is often related to fears of contamination, and compulsive arranging can be caused by a need for symmetry and balance.

(Video) #OCD: Starving The Monster | Tauscha Johanson | TEDxIdahoFalls

This disorder can be treated with therapy, medications, and procedures that stimulate parts of your brain known to be affected by the disorder. If you are diagnosed early and you participate in a treatment program consistently, it’s possible you’ll be able have a good quality of life.


How does OCD affect cleaning? ›

Is obsessive cleaning a symptom of OCD? Sometimes, yes. For many patients, obsessive thoughts revolve around germs, which makes the compulsions manifest as obsessive cleaning. People with OCD may also feel the need to organize everything to make sense of their thoughts.

What triggers OCD cleaning? ›

It is a symptom of one of the many subtypes of obsessive compulsive disorder. Sufferers of compulsive cleaning may have a pervasive feeling of contamination by dirt, germs environmental contaminants, or chemical toxins. They may fear getting ill or contracting certain diseases, such as the flu, cancer, or HIV.

Do people with OCD need to be clean? ›

Some people with OCD do have compulsions around cleanliness and order. However, this is not a diagnostic requirement nor the only way OCD manifests. It's important to acknowledge this because people living with OCD who aren't focused on cleaning might find it difficult to look for and accept their diagnosis.

Is excessive cleaning OCD? ›

Washing and cleaning rituals are the most well-known and widely recognized symptom of OCD. People with this type of OCD can be described as perpetually engaged in compulsive acts of decontamination.

What jobs are good for people with OCD? ›

For some people with OCD, independent work improves focus and productivity. Couriers, jewellers and cleaners often work on their own. Creative jobs like photography, copywriting and graphic design are also often highly independent.

What are the 7 forms of OCD? ›

Common Types of OCD
  • Aggressive or sexual thoughts. ...
  • Harm to loved ones. ...
  • Germs and contamination. ...
  • Doubt and incompleteness. ...
  • Sin, religion, and morality. ...
  • Order and symmetry. ...
  • Self-control.

What are 5 of the main symptoms of OCD? ›

  • Fear of contamination or dirt.
  • Doubting and having difficulty tolerating uncertainty.
  • Needing things orderly and symmetrical.
  • Aggressive or horrific thoughts about losing control and harming yourself or others.
  • Unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects.
11 Mar 2020

Is excessive cleaning a trauma response? ›

Similarly, if a trauma victim has experienced sexual abuse or violence, they may often blame themselves. They may feel contaminated and impure, thus resulting in “excessive” cleaning of themselves or their environment.

How do you break OCD contamination? ›

People with Contamination OCD can get much better through Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERP). ERP is when you voluntarily expose yourself to the source of your fear over and over and over again, without acting out any compulsion to neutralize or stop the fear.

How do you know if someone is clean with OCD? ›

Compulsive behaviour
  1. cleaning and hand washing.
  2. checking – such as checking doors are locked or that the gas is off.
  3. counting.
  4. ordering and arranging.
  5. hoarding.
  6. asking for reassurance.
  7. repeating words in their head.
  8. thinking "neutralising" thoughts to counter the obsessive thoughts.

Can you be OCD and be messy? ›

The idea that a messy person can't have OCD.

As discussed above, a common misconception is that a person with OCD is a super-organized, perfectionistic clean freak who is preoccupied with making sure that everything is sterile and in place. People tend to believe that messiness and OCD don't go together.

How do you help someone with OCD clean? ›

Here are some things you could try:
  1. Agree on an approach that feels right for you both. ...
  2. Encourage them to challenge compulsions where appropriate. ...
  3. Offer a hug or other emotional support instead of helping with a compulsion.
  4. Seek advice.

Why can't I stop cleaning? ›

Those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) will have a great need or compulsion to clean or perform cleaning rituals to feel in control. When they cannot keep up with these things, they feel like their lives are falling apart. The good news is that there is help for those who struggle with OCD.

How do I get over cleaning anxiety? ›

Work around the room systematically, making sure to work slowly and take your breaks. If your anxiety is being triggered, stop. Come back to it when it's passed. Give yourself a set limit on what you're doing (“I'm doing three 20/10s and then I'm done for today”), and hold yourself to do it.

What are the strengths of people with OCD? ›

People who have OCD are usually very attentive and have great attention to detail. This trait can be useful in a number of different situations—in school, at work, while doing creative hobbies, and so on. In fact, most people go through life on autopilot, and attention to detail often falls by the wayside.

What famous person suffers from OCD? ›

Howie Mandel

A longtime entertainer, host, and comedian, Howie Mandel is one of the most famous people with OCD and he has been incredibly open over the years about his struggle with the disorder.

Is OCD a type of disability? ›

Is OCD a disability? For your OCD to qualify as a disability, you must provide evidence showing its debilitating effect on your day-to-day life. A diagnosis by a professional doctor is necessary to prove that you have little control over how an unwanted obsession and compulsive behavior affect your ability to work.

What is the most common OCD behavior? ›

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. Common compulsions include: Excessive cleaning and/or handwashing. Ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way.

Who is OCD most common in? ›

OCD is most common in older teens or young adults. It can begin as early as preschool age and as late as age 40.

What are the 4 stages of OCD? ›

Let's begin by learning the Four Steps.
  • Step 1: Relabel. The critical first step is to learn to recognize obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges. ...
  • Step 2: Reattribute. ...
  • Step 3: Refocus. ...
  • Step 4: Revalue.

What triggers OCD to start? ›

Ongoing anxiety or stress, or being part of a stressful event like a car accident or starting a new job, could trigger OCD or make it worse. Pregnancy or giving birth can sometimes trigger perinatal OCD.

What triggers OCD the most? ›

Stressful events may trigger the OCD episodes or make them worse. You may or may not have insight into the irrational thoughts or behaviors. Medicines and therapy can help reduce the time spent in the thought patterns or compulsive behaviors.

What mental illnesses are common with OCD? ›

These include the obsessive preoccupations and repetitive behaviors found in body dysmorphic disorder, hypochondriasis, Tourette syndrome, Parkinson's disease, catatonia, autism, and in some individuals with eating disorders (eg, anorexia nervosa).

Is OCD a form of PTSD? ›

1 IN 4 INDIVIDUALS WITH PTSD ALSO EXPERIENCING OCD. The role of trauma in PTSD is well defined, but a new phenomenon called trauma-related OCD, in which a patient develops OCD after experiencing a trauma, has been coined to refer to the link between trauma and OCD.

Can parents cause OCD? ›

PARENTING. As previously indicated, there is no evidence that the way parents guide or discipline their children causes OCD. Parents should not be blamed when a child exhibits symptoms of this disorder.

Can you go back to normal after OCD? ›

Getting the correct diagnosis, or even just recognizing you have OCD, often takes years. Then comes the search for appropriate treatment, followed by a long-term commitment to therapy and hard work. We know recovery is possible, but it is rarely a “quick fix.”

Can OCD be caused by trauma? ›

The onset of OCD is not limited to the original meaning of trauma; rather, traumatic experiences such as unexpected exposure to contaminants or various stressful life events often cause the onset of OCD.

What are the 9 symptoms of OCD? ›

General warning signs of OCD
  • excessively seeking reassurance.
  • resisting change.
  • spending too much time completing things, getting dressed or eating a meal (longer than would be expected for the child's age)
  • redoing tasks.
  • refusing to touch objects with bare hands.
  • excessively washing hands, body and so on.
19 Jul 2016

Is OCD part of autism? ›

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and OCD are two different conditions, however, it is true that some symptoms of autism overlap with those of other disorders, such as OCD, and can look similar (Højgaard et al. 2016).

Do people with OCD know they have it? ›

Many people with OCD know or suspect their obsessional thoughts are not realistic; others may think they could be true. Even if they know their intrusive thoughts are not realistic, people with OCD have difficulty disengaging from the obsessive thoughts or stopping the compulsive actions.

Can OCD cause a mental breakdown? ›

Possible Complications. Long-term complications of OCD have to do with the type of obsessions or compulsions. For example, constant handwashing can cause skin breakdown. OCD does not usually progress into another mental problem.

What it's like to live with someone with OCD? ›

It can be difficult, demanding and exhausting to live with a person who has OCD. Family members and friends may become deeply involved in the person's rituals and may have to assume responsibility and care for many daily activities that the person with OCD is unable to undertake.

Is cleaning a coping mechanism? ›

How can cleaning be so essential to their wellbeing? A 2015 study found that “repetitive and predictable actions,” like those involved in cleaning, act as a coping strategy against temporary anxiety — similar to biting one's nails, pacing up and down, or praying.

What do you call a person who cleans all the time? ›

Germaphobes are obsessed with sanitation and feel compelled to clean excessively, but they're really suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Why is cleaning so overwhelming? ›

If you feel overwhelmed when cleaning, maybe you just have too much stuff to organize. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that you cannot welcome new things into your life if you don't release some of the old stuff. You need to begin to purge things from your life.

Why are poor people's houses messy? ›

a need to repurpose or re-use used or salvaged items. a difficulty easily disposing of things the way a middle class person would have, making pickup or drop off of trash less frequent. Bad food may make it hard to think well.

What does cleanliness say about a person? ›

Psychologists correlate cleanliness and mental ease. It has been found that the idea of cleanliness and tidiness induce us to be more ethical, whereas, on the contrary if we feel ourselves in a neglected environment, a feeling of frustration can lead us to lie and cheat.

Why do people with anxiety clean so much? ›


Researchers theorized that people gravitate toward repetitive behaviors (such as cleaning) during times of stress. Why? It's all about control. "We want to be able to do something when we get anxious, and what we really want is to be in control and take action," says Alicia H.

What is cleaning trauma? ›

Trauma cleaning includes suicides, natural or sudden deaths (such as road traffic accidents), forensic and crime scene cleaning, including the clean-up of substances such as luminal and fingerprint powder and bio-hazardous waste such as blood.

Why do I find cleaning so hard? ›

Busy/Restricted Schedule

Cleaning a house is one of those household chores that require plenty of time and physical efforts. Due to the fast-paced life and busy schedules, it becomes hard for people to spruce up their house on a regular basis.

What causes OCD to trigger? ›

Ongoing anxiety or stress, or being part of a stressful event like a car accident or starting a new job, could trigger OCD or make it worse. Pregnancy or giving birth can sometimes trigger perinatal OCD.

How does contamination OCD start? ›

In fact, the more a person engages in the obsession-compulsion cycle, the stronger the Contamination OCD can become. The more they wash and avoid, the more the fear of contamination grows. The more they wash, the more they need to keep washing. The more they avoid, the more they must keep avoiding.

What makes a person a germaphobe? ›

The behavioral symptoms of germaphobia include: avoiding or leaving situations perceived to result in germ exposure. spending an excessive amount of time thinking about, preparing for, or putting off situations that might involve germs. seeking help to cope with the fear or situations that cause fear.

How do I stop worrying about cleaning? ›

5 Ways to Stress Less About Cleaning
  1. Short Sprints Not Marathons. No one wants to think about setting aside 5 hours to clean the whole house. ...
  2. Keep Your Eye On the Prize. ...
  3. Keep your mind busy. ...
  4. Schedule It. ...
  5. Do What You Can & Be Realistic.
27 Feb 2015

Are you born with OCD or does it develop? ›

Genetics, brain abnormalities, and the environment are thought to play a role. It often starts in the teens or early adulthood. But, it can also start in childhood. OCD affects men and women equally.

What feelings does a person with OCD have? ›

If you have OCD, you'll usually experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease.

Is OCD a chemical imbalance? ›

Individuals with OCD often have certain chemical imbalances present in the brain. Changes in the neurochemicals serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate are normally present in OCD cases.

Is OCD learned or genetic? ›

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a serious psychiatric disorder that affects approximately 2% of the populations of children and adults. Family aggregation studies have demonstrated that OCD is familial, and results from twin studies demonstrate that the familiality is due in part to genetic factors.

What are Germaphobes afraid of? ›

Germophobia is a term used to describe a pathological fear of germs, bacteria, uncleanliness, contamination, and infection. Germophobia, also known as mysophobia, verminophobia, and bacillophobia, is most commonly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) but can present in a wide variety of people.

How can I fix my OCD by myself? ›

6 Best Strategies to Combat Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  1. Practice mindfulness to manage stress. Two key characteristics of OCD are high anxiety and the presence of intrusive thoughts. ...
  2. Get plenty of exercise. ...
  3. Sleep well and enough. ...
  4. Avoid nicotine and alcohol. ...
  5. Reach out to family and friends. ...
  6. Find an ERP therapist.
7 Jan 2021

How do you beat Germophobia? ›

A common mysophobia treatment is exposure therapy. Working with your mental health provider, you explore the reasons behind your fear of germs. This is the first step in overcoming mysophobia. When you feel comfortable, your therapist gradually exposes you to situations where germs may be present.

Why do people with anxiety get clean? ›


Researchers theorized that people gravitate toward repetitive behaviors (such as cleaning) during times of stress. Why? It's all about control. "We want to be able to do something when we get anxious, and what we really want is to be in control and take action," says Alicia H.

What is obsessive cleaning disorder? ›

The repetitive behaviors, such as hand washing/cleaning, checking on things, and mental acts like (counting) or other activities, can significantly interfere with a person's daily activities and social interactions. Many people without OCD have distressing thoughts or repetitive behaviors.

Why does the thought of cleaning give me anxiety? ›

One of the most common problems as to why you get so stressed out about cleaning is that you think that the cleanliness levels of your homes directly correlate to you as a person. The cleaner the house, the better person you are. Either that, or you compare cleaning with care.


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