Understanding the Cycle of OCD

The uncontrollable thoughts, cravings, and repetitive behaviours that characterise obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) set off a series of events known as the OCD cycle.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that can afflict anyone of any age, gender, or race from anywhere in the globe. It is characterised by intrusive thoughts that are considered "obsessions."

Unwelcome, upsetting thoughts, pictures, or urges that are overly frequent and consume a large amount of time—often hours of your day—are considered obsessions in individuals with OCD.

In OCD, compulsions are neutralising behaviours. These ritualistic actions serve as a diversion from the unpleasant feelings that obsessions engender. Compulsions are highly personal and frequently have no discernible pattern or rationale for their solace.

The OCD cycle, a four-part series of events that can swiftly spiral out of control, is the journey from an obsession to momentary relief.

What is an OCD cycle?

The term "OCD cycle" refers to a common, recurring OCD episode. It begins as an obsession, stops with momentary relief, and then recurs, resulting in an unending cycle of upsetting thoughts and ritualistic actions.

The OCD cycle is particularly difficult to escape because compulsions are thought to be successful in providing relief. The OCD brain believes that if something "works" for managing an obsession, it will always work, hence neglecting to take that activity could have disastrous consequences.

According to Kate Skurat, a clinical manager at Calmerry in Cody, Wyoming, and licenced mental health counsellor, "OCD is aptly labelled a 'vicious' cycle due to its repetitive nature." Therefore, the longer you stay in the cycle, the more strength and momentum it gains, posing a significant obstacle to individuals who are trying to break free.

What are the four components of the OCD cycle?

There are four components to the OCD cycle:
  • obsession
  • compulsion
  • temporary relief
  • anxiety


"The cycle is initiated by an intrusive thought, image, or urge," clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Alcee of Tarrytown, New York, said. "These are the obsessions and 'what-if' and 'if-then' doubts that plague [someone with OCD]."

One cannot control an obsession. Even if you know they're nonsensical, they slink into your thoughts and play nonstop.

OCD obsessions are frequently fear-based and may have connections to the following common themes:
  • contamination
  • violence
  • responsibility
  • identity
  • relationships
  • perfectionism
  • religion or morals
Alcee lists the following as particular instances of obsessions:
  • What if it wasn't only the sound of a pothole that I unintentionally ran over someone?
  • Something terrible will happen to my family if I don't say this mantra three times.
  • Is my love for my relationship a fa├žade, or is it genuine?
  • I keep seeing pictures of myself shoving someone off this cliff. Do I have a bad personality?


The second phase of the OCD cycle is anxiety. It's your normal reaction to unsettling thoughts.

According to Skurat, "anxiety levels vary, but they are always out of proportion to the real threat." "Those who have OCD suffer from heightened anxiety, which drives them to participate in obsessive behaviours in an attempt to cope with their discomfort."


A compulsion is an action you take to relieve the distress brought on by an obsession, either mentally, physically, or both. In addition to many other behaviours, compulsive behaviours can include counting, repeating words, looking for validation from others, and meticulous organising.

Skurat defined a compulsion as something like placing objects in a "right" orientation to prevent negative outcomes.

Temporary relief

In OCD, compulsions provide momentary respite, representing the last phase of the cycle. Alcee remarked, "This fleeting relief is like the instant gratification of junk food." "It provides temporary relief, but it lacks the fulfilling feeling that comes from a healthy meal, which encourages more compulsive behaviours and obsessive thoughts."

How does the cycle of OCD start?

Even though the OCD cycle seems never-ending, it all begins with an obsession.

It's unclear why obsessions arise in the first place. OCD is hypothesised to have several underlying causes, suggesting that multiple elements, rather than just one, may be involved.

According to research, your innate temperament, genetics, traumatic experiences, and variations in the structure and biology of your brain can all play a role in the development of OCD.

In the end, obsessions are usually in line with your ideals. That is one of the things that makes them upsetting. For example, any uncontrollable thoughts of violence induce tremendous worry because you don't want to hurt someone.

How to break the OCD cycle

Skurat claims that each individual's frequency and intensity of OCD cycles are unique and can be impacted by a wide range of elements, including past important life events, present general coping methods, and external stresses.

There are strategies to assist you in releasing yourself from a persistent OCD cycle if you feel like you've fallen victim to it.

Creating space

Alcee advises giving oneself room to resist the need to act on a compulsion right away, as doing so might send you into an OCD cycle like a stone.

He remarked, "It's like the quicksand again." "Even though it's natural to panic and want to escape the tension right away, giving yourself some time and space beforehand—like lying down in the quicksand—shows effects with longer lasting relief.”

Facing the themes of obsession

In certain cases, including OCD, confronting your fears—also referred to as exposure therapy—is essential to conquering them. Skurat advises interacting with circumstances that could serve as fixation triggers to allay your fears, as opposed to avoiding them.

"Avoiding particular triggers and uneasy settings helps to magnify the impact of your OCD-driven thoughts," the expert said. "You've been convinced by your compulsive thoughts that life is scary and that there is danger in the world."

Seeking professional treatment

Teaching you to face and control obsessive thoughts without resorting to compulsions is the main goal of OCD treatment. It entails applying tried-and-true treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which attempts to reorganise maladaptive thought processes into adaptive ones.

Getting treatment for OCD can give you the tools to break free from a loop when you feel trapped in one and help you manage the OCD cycle in real-time.

Bottom line

The four components of the OCD experience loop are an obsession, intense anxiety, a compulsion to offset suffering, and momentary respite. The cycle starts over when intrusive ideas resurface.

Breaking the cycle of OCD can be achieved by addressing the themes of obsessions, giving oneself time to reflect before acting on compulsion, and obtaining OCD therapy.


How does the OCD cycle work?

Obsessions, anxiety, compulsions, and temporary relief

Is overthinking OCD or anxiety?

If your only feeling is anxiety, you won't act on your thoughts. All you'll do is overthink things.

Can OCD go away?

There is no cure.

Can I beat OCD on my own?

Most people need therapy (and sometimes medication) to manage their symptoms.

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