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The Physical Symptoms of OCD

AS OCD is a type of anxiety disorder, the physical symptoms are essentially the same as any other anxiety disorder.

Knowing the physical symptoms of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder help you better understand how it works, how to treat it, and how to react when anxiety starts to rise.

 It is important to know the necessary signals from the body when something is wrong in order to act accordingly in situations such as an increase in anxiety, a panic attack, a loop of obsessive thoughts or other similar stressful situations. 


Does OCD have physical symptoms?


OCD is a disorder caused by a high level of anxiety, which manifests itself in the form of obsessions and compulsions.


However, the obsessions and compulsions, which are the defining symptoms of OCD, are psychological symptoms. But anxiety, just like OCD, can also have physical symptoms.


The physical symptoms of anxiety are a response of the body to a potential danger. When there could be a danger, the body prepares for escape or attack. It is a nervous system response.


However, people with anxiety disorders (such as OCD) see these symptoms appear without real danger. Non-harmful situations are recognized by your body as such because of the tension they have inside.


Example: a social gathering is harmless, but a person with high internal anxiety may perceive it as a tense situation. Their body could react with dizziness, palpitations, sweating, etc.


If you start to feel physical symptoms of anxiety, it’s best to see a doctor. If it confirms that it is anxiety, you will have to see a mental health professional.


In any case, remember that what will alert you to a possible OCD are not these physical symptoms, but the appearance of obsessive and intrusive thoughts and (in more serious cases, but not all) of ritual compulsions.


Are there also physical compulsions that can be confused with “tic”?


The defining symptoms of OCD are obsessions and, in more severe cases, compulsions. Compulsions and tics are different things.


The person with OCD has a high degree of internal anxiety. The compulsions are a response to that anxiety.


The person with OCD performs rituals to obtain momentary relief from their anxiety. This relief is very short term. For example: Some people with Cleaning OCD may wash their hands many times.


The compulsions are time consuming and negatively affect the person’s daily routine.


Tics are involuntary movements of the body or muscles (usually of the face). The person with a tic cannot control it, although they generally do not require stopping the person’s daily routine to be performed.


Tics occur for different reasons, which includes being hereditary. Anxiety can also play a role. Sometimes they are part of a disorder (such as Tourette Syndrome)


A person with OCD may or may not have tics. A person who has tics may or may not have OCD. There is no necessary relationship between tic and OCD. Although in both cases, anxiety plays an important role.


Compulsions are not involuntary movements of the body. Although we cannot say that the person performs these rituals voluntarily, since they do so driven by a high level of anxiety.


What are the physical symptoms of OCD?


When we talk about physical symptoms, we refer to the physiological changes that the body undergoes, not about the performance of compulsions.

Since OCD comes from a high level of internal anxiety, its physical symptoms are the same than those of anxiety.

These occur as a response to a possible danger, preparing the body to attack or escape (even though there is no real danger).

Some symptoms can be:


  1. Increase in heart rate and force of the heartbeat.
  2. Change in blood flow
  3. Cold, numb, or tingling fingers.
  4. Increased rate and depth of breathing
  5. Dizziness
  6. Blurry vision
  7. Overheating
  8. Increased sweating.
  9. Dilated pupils.
  10. Decreased salivation.
  11. Less activity in the digestive system
  12. Muscles in tension, with possible pain, tremors and shaking.
  13. Tiredness and exhaustion.


(1/11) Increased rhythm and force of the heartbeat: the body prepares to attack or escape. This is why it needs more oxygen in the tissues, that is, an increase in blood flow. That is why the heart beats strongly and fast when there is anxiety.


(2/11) Changes in blood flow: blood is withdrawn from where it is not needed (skin and fingers) to go to the muscles that need it the most in the case of a escape or attack (thighs and biceps)


(3/11) Numbness and tingling in the fingers and cold skin: these symptoms are produced precisely by those changes in the blood flow, when it stops receiving blood.


(4/11) Increase in the speed and depth of breathing: as we said before, the body needs more oxygen. However, this hyperventilation can cause a feeling of suffocation, pain and tightness in the chest.


(5/11) Dizziness, blurred vision, confusion and heat: all these symptoms are caused by the decreased supply of blood to the head. The reduction in blood supply is very slight and the symptoms are not dangerous (although they are unpleasant).


(6/11) Increased sweating: makes the skin slippery and serves to cool the body.


(7/11) Less salivation: makes the mouth dry.


(8/11) Dilated Pupils: Pupils dilate to let in more light. This can cause blurred vision and bright spots.


(9/11) Less activity of the digestive system: this produces nausea, heaviness in the stomach and constipation.


(10/11) Tension of the muscles: when preparing to escape or attack, the muscles get tense. This causes pain and sometimes tremors and jerks as well.


(11/11) General feeling of heat, tiredness and exhaustion due to the energy used in the whole process.


Are panic attacks a symptom of OCD?


Panic attacks are not a symptom of OCD.

They are more related to anxiety itself than to OCD. The symptoms that define OCD are actually obsessions and compulsions.

However, a person with OCD has high anxiety so, although it is not a symptom of OCD itself, there may be cases in which a panic attack occurs.

Panic attacks appear when the level of anxiety is higher or in the face of a situation of continuous and acute stress, which we see that we cannot sustain.

The person feels that the panic attack has come on suddenly and for no reason. That is something random.

But really it’s not so. There is always a cause, something that worries you especially and that, in the face of that stressful situation, causes a panic attack as a reaction.

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are the same as anxiety but in a higher degree: dizziness, feeling unstable, tachycardia, feeling short of breath, choking…

To prevent them, it is important to connect with your emotions to see where the anxiety comes from.

If you have a panic attack, see a doctor for a checkup. If it is confirmed that it is anxiety, you should see a mental health professional.


Beyond Physical Symptoms: The Psychological Symptoms of OCD.


As with the physical symptoms, in OCD there are a series of psychological symptoms that are produced by internal anxiety. Anxiety is not a symptom, but a cause.

The most common psychological symptoms of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. In fact, they are the symptoms that indicate that we are facing an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Obsessions are constant, intrusive, recurring thoughts about a subject. Compulsions are behavioral acts or mental acts that the person performs in an attempt to alleviate that anxiety.

But in addition, in OCD there are also other psychological symptoms: constant doubts, fear of certain situations, avoidance of situations, actions or places; feelings of guilt, worry about what other people will say, mental rigidity (a strict view of things and inability to transgress those limits even if it goes against one’s own needs), etc.

These are some examples, although there may be many more. They are all secondary psychological symptoms, since the main ones, which indicate that we are facing OCD, are obsessions and compulsions.

Both obsesions and compulsions can occur at the same time in cases of greater anxiety (OCD) or, on other occasions, only the obsessions (pure Obsessive Disorder)

In addition, psychological symptoms of anxiety are added to OCD: tiredness, attention problems, concentration problems, memory problems, easy distraction, etc.


What is an obsessional neurosis and what are its symptoms?


Obsessional neurosis is not a type of OCD, but it is a disorder that shares some similarities. Both are produced by anxiety.

In an obsessional neurosis there is a very high level of anxiety that leads to obsessive thoughts for a long time. But unlike OCD, these thoughts are not intrusive.

In an OCD, the person perceives thoughts as something intrusive, that appears suddenly, involuntarily and that represents images that are not their own or desired. For example: fear of hurting someone.

In the obsessional neurosis, however, there are own and voluntary thoughts, even if they are obsessive. For example: being fine at work.

In addition to the typical symptoms of anxiety, some psychological symptoms of obsessional neurosis are:


– Being overwhelmed by external sounds, especially those that are often repeated rhythmically, like sounds of food (another person eating, especially crunchy food)

– Seeing patterns on uneven surfaces, both voluntarily and involuntarily.

– Difficulty with the physical imperfections of others.

– Mental rigidity: as in OCD, in obsessional neurosis things are seen in an extreme way (totally bad or totally good) which makes decision making difficult.

Remember that it is the mental health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist) who must diagnose whether it is an OCD, an obsessional neurosis or another anxiety disorder.