Primarily obsessional obsessive–compulsive disorder

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Primarily obsessional obsessive–compulsive disorder, also known as purely obsessional obsessive–compulsive disorder (Pure O),[1] is a lesser-known form or manifestation of OCD. It is not a diagnosis in the DSM-5.[2] For people with primarily obsessional OCD, there are fewer observable compulsions, compared to those commonly seen with the typical form of OCD (checking, counting, hand-washing, etc.). While ritualizing and neutralizing behaviors do take place, they are mostly cognitive in nature, involving mental avoidance and excessive rumination.[3] Primarily obsessional OCD takes the form of intrusive thoughts often of a distressing, sexual, or violent nature (e.g., fear of acting on impulses).[4]

According to the DSM-5, "The obsessive-compulsive and related disorders differ from developmentally normative preoccupations and rituals by being excessive or persisting beyond developmentally appropriate periods. The distinction between the presence of subclinical symptoms and a clinical disorder requires assessment of a number of factors, including the individual's level of distress and impairment in functioning."[2]


Primarily obsessional OCD has been called "one of the most distressing and challenging forms of OCD."[5] People with this form of OCD have "distressing and unwanted thoughts pop into [their] head frequently," and the thoughts "typically center on a fear that you may do something totally uncharacteristic of yourself, something... potentially fatal... to yourself or others."[5] The thoughts "quite likely, are of an aggressive or sexual nature."[5]

The nature and type of primarily obsessional OCD vary greatly, but the central theme for all affected is the emergence of a disturbing, intrusive thought or question, an unwanted/inappropriate mental image, or a frightening impulse that causes the person extreme anxiety because it is antithetical to closely held religious beliefs, morals, or societal norms.[6] The fears associated with primarily obsessional OCD tend to be far more personal and terrifying for the affected individual than the fears of someone with traditional OCD. Pure-O fears usually focus on self-devastating scenarios that they feel would ruin their life or the lives of those around them. An example of this difference could be that someone with traditional OCD is overly concerned or worried about security or cleanliness, whereas someone with Pure-O may be terrified that they have undergone a radical change in their sexuality (e.g., might be or might have changed into a pedophile), that they might be a murderer, or that they might cause any form of harm to a loved one or an innocent person or to themselves, or that they will go insane.

They will understand that these fears are unlikely or even impossible but the anxiety felt will make the obsession seem real and meaningful. While those without primarily obsessional OCD might instinctively respond to bizarre, intrusive thoughts or impulses as insignificant and part of a normal variance in the human mind, someone with Pure-O will respond with profound alarm followed by an intense attempt to neutralize the thought or avoid having the thought again. The person begins to ask themselves constantly, "Am I really capable of something like that?" or "Could that really happen?" or "Is that really me?" (even though they usually realize that their fear is irrational, which causes them further distress)[7] and puts tremendous effort into escaping or resolving the unwanted thought. They then end up in a vicious cycle of mentally searching for reassurance and trying to get a definitive answer.[3][8]

Common intrusive thoughts/obsessions include themes of:

  • Responsibility: with an excessive concern over someone's well-being marked specifically by guilt over believing they have harmed or might harm someone, either on purpose or inadvertently.[9]
  • Sexuality: including recurrent doubt over one's sexual orientation (also called HOCD or "homosexual OCD"). People with this theme typically display symptoms different from those of people experiencing an actual crisis in sexuality. One major difference is that people who have HOCD report being attracted sexually towards the opposite sex prior to the onset of HOCD, while homosexual people whether in the closet or repressed have always had such same-sex attractions.[10] The question "Am I gay?"[11] takes on a pathological form. Many people with this type of obsession are in healthy and fulfilling romantic relationships, either with members of the opposite sex, or the same sex (in which case their fear would be "Am I straight?").[6][12][13][14][15][16][17]
  • Pedophilia: Sexual themes in OCD can also involve the fear that one is a pedophile. This is typically accompanied by significant distress and fear that one might actually act on pedophilic urges.[18]
  • Violence: which involves a constant fear of harming oneself or loved ones.[12][19]
  • Racism: intrusive thoughts or impulses related to racism or race.[20][21]
  • Religiosity: manifesting as intrusive thoughts or impulses revolving around blasphemous and sacrilegious themes.[19][22]
  • Health: including consistent fears of having or contracting a disease (different from hypochondriasis) through seemingly impossible means (for example, touching an object that has just been touched by someone with a disease) or mistrust of a diagnostic test.[19][22]
  • Relationship obsessions (ROCD): in which someone in a romantic relationship endlessly tries to ascertain the justification for being or remaining in that relationship. It includes obsessive thoughts such as "How do I know this is real love?", "How do I know he/she is the one?", "Am I attracted enough to this person?", "Am I in love with this person, or is it just lust?", "Does he/she really love me?", and/or obsessive preoccupation with the perceived flaws of the intimate partner.[23][24] The agony of attempting to arrive at certainty leads to an intense and endless cycle of anxiety because it is impossible to arrive at a definite answer. The partner will have seriously troubling thoughts about what their significant other could be doing, especially in the possible and usual form of cheating. Although these thoughts are not triggered by the affected individual, and are indeed spontaneous, the partner will denigrate themselves for thinking in such a way that makes the other look bad.[1] There is uncontrollable constant guilt, fear, and distressing thoughts of what will happen.[23]
  • Existential: involving persistent and obsessive questioning of the nature of self, reality, the universe, and/or other philosophical topics.[25]


There is no such diagnosis in DSM-5. The only diagnosis existing in DSM-5 is obsessive–compulsive disorder.[2] According to DSM-5 compulsions can be mental, but they are always repetitive actions like "praying, counting, repeating words silently".[26] DSM-5 does not have any information that searching an answer for some question can be associated with OCD.[27]


Those with primarily obsessional OCD might appear normal and high-functioning, yet spend a great deal of time ruminating, trying to solve or answer any of the questions that cause them distress. Very often, individuals with Pure-O are dealing with considerable guilt and anxiety. Ruminations may include trying to think about something 'in the right way' in an attempt to relieve this distress.[3][6]

For example, an intrusive thought "I might have just killed Bill with this steak knife" is followed by a catastrophic misinterpretation of the thought, i.e. "How could I have such a thought? Deep down, I must be a psychopath."[28] This might lead a person to continually surf the Internet, reading numerous articles on defining psychopathy. This reassurance-seeking ritual will provide no further clarification and could exacerbate the intensity of the search for the answer. There are numerous corresponding cognitive biases present, including thought-action fusion, over-importance of thoughts, and need for control over thoughts.[28]


The most effective treatment for primarily obsessional OCD appears to be cognitive-behavioral therapy[29] (more specifically exposure and response prevention (ERP)) as well as cognitive therapy (CT)[29][30] which may or may not be combined with the use of medication, such as SSRIs.[3][31][32] People with OCD without overt compulsions are considered by some researchers to respond less to ERP compared to others with OCD and therefore ERP can prove less successful than CT.[33][34]

Exposure and Response Prevention for Pure-O is theoretically based on the principles of classical conditioning and extinction. The spike (intrusive thought) often presents itself as a paramount question or disastrous scenario followed by a compulsive response of fear, worry, questioning and rumination.(e.g., WHAT IF I actually want to harm someone? WHAT IF I committed a sin?).

On the other hand, a therapeutic response (one that will help interrupt the cycle of obsessing) is one that answers the spike (intrusive thought) in a way that leaves ambiguity. With a therapeutic response, the subject accepts the possibility and is willing to take the risk, of the feared outcome rather than attempt to (temporarily and repeatedly) reassure oneself that the feared occurrence will not happen.

For example, the spike/intrusive thought would be, "Maybe I said something offensive to my boss yesterday." A recommended response would be, "Maybe I did. I'll live with the possibility and take the risk he'll fire me tomorrow." Although resisting the need to reassure oneself and perform compulsions will initially cause anxiety to increase, refusing to practice compulsions over an extended period of time will eventually cause anxiety around their intrusive thoughts to decrease, making them less prevalent (e.g. they will begin to occur less often), and less distressing when they do occur. Using this procedure, it is imperative that the distinction be made between the therapeutic response and non-therapeutic response (rumination). The therapeutic response does not seek to answer the question but to accept the uncertainty of the unsolved dilemma.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a newer approach that also is used to treat purely obsessional OCD, as well as other mental disorders such as anxiety and clinical depression. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may also be helpful for breaking out of rumination and interrupting the cycle of obsessing.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Hyman, Bruce and Troy DeFrene. Coping with OCD. 2008. New Harbinger Publications. p. 64.
  2. ^ a b c Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  3. ^ a b c d Frederick M. Toates, and Olga Coschug-Toates. Obsessive compulsive disorder, 2nd Edition. 2000, pp. 111-128.
  4. ^ Julien, Dominic; O'Connor, Kieron P.; Aardema, Frederick (2009-07-01). "Intrusions related to obsessive–compulsive disorder: a question of content or context?". Journal of Clinical Psychology. 65 (7): 709–722. doi:10.1002/jclp.20578. ISSN 1097-4679. PMID 19388059.
  5. ^ a b c Hyman, Bruce and Troy DeFrene. Coping with OCD. 2008. New Harbinger Publications.
  6. ^ a b c The OCD workbook By Bruce M. Hyman, Cherry Pedrick, Pages 16-23
  7. ^ Obsessive–compulsive disorder By Frederick M. Toates, Olga Coschug-Toates, 2nd Edition 2000, Pages 94-96
  8. ^ The American Psychiatric Publishing textbook of psychiatry, By Robert E. Hales, Stuart C. Yudofsky, Glen O. Gabbard, American Psychiatric Publishing, includes Purely Obsessional OCD in its definition of O.C.D.
  9. ^ "OCD ONLINE - Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt". Archived from the original on 2005-03-22.
  10. ^ "NeuroticPlanet: OCD and Homosexuality Obsessions (HOCD)". Archived from the original on 2016-01-31. Retrieved 2011-11-11.
  11. ^ Winston, Sally M.; Seif, Martin N. (2017-03-01). Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts. New Harbinger Publications. ISBN 978-1-62625-436-7.
  12. ^ a b Obsessive-compulsive related disorders By Eric Hollander, pages 140-146
  13. ^ Homosexuality Anxiety: A Misunderstood Form of OCD Archived 2015-09-23 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Bhatia, Manjeet S.; Kaur, Jaswinder (January 2015). "Homosexual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (HOCD): A Rare Case Report". Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 9 (1): VD01–VD02. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2015/10773.5377. ISSN 2249-782X. PMC 4347158. PMID 25738067.
  15. ^ Sebeki, Lennard V. (2008). Leading-Edge Health Education Issues. Nova Publishers. ISBN 978-1-60021-874-3.
  16. ^ Williams, Monnica T.; Farris, Samantha G. (2011-05-15). "Sexual orientation obsessions in obsessive–compulsive disorder: Prevalence and correlates". Psychiatry Research. 187 (1): 156–159. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2010.10.019. ISSN 0165-1781. PMC 3070770. PMID 21094531.
  17. ^ Williams, Monnica T.; Crozier, Marjorie; Powers, Mark (2011-02-01). "Treatment of Sexual-Orientation Obsessions in Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder Using Exposure and Ritual Prevention". Clinical Case Studies. 10 (1): 53–66. doi:10.1177/1534650110393732. ISSN 1534-6501. PMC 3230880. PMID 22162667.
  18. ^ Bruce SL, Ching TH, Williams MT (February 2018). "Pedophilia-Themed Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder: Assessment, Differential Diagnosis, and Treatment with Exposure and Response Prevention". Arch Sex Behav. 47 (2): 389–402. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-1031-4. PMID 28822003. S2CID 207092958.
  19. ^ a b c Akhtar, S., Wig, NA, Verma, VK, Pershad, D., & Verma, SK A phenomenological analysis of symptoms in obsessive-compulsive neurosis. 1975
  20. ^ "Racism and Racist Themed OCD". New England OCD Institute. Retrieved 2023-09-24.
  21. ^ "What Is Race OCD? Overview, Symptoms and Treatment Options". NOCD. Retrieved 2023-09-24.
  22. ^ a b Use of factor analysis to detect potential phenotypes in obsessive–compulsive disorder, Psychiatry Research, Volume 128, Issue 3, Pages 273-280 D.Denys, Geus, H.van Megen, H.Westenberg
  23. ^ a b Doron, Guy; Derby, D.; Szepsenwol, O.; Talmor, D. (2012). "Flaws and All: Exploring Partner-Focused Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms". Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. 1 (4): 234–243. doi:10.1016/j.jocrd.2012.05.004.
  24. ^ Doron, Guy; Derby, D.; Szepsenwol, O.; Talmor, D. (2012). "Tainted Love: exploring relationship-centered obsessive compulsive symptoms in two non-clinical cohorts". Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. 1 (1): 16–24. doi:10.1016/j.jocrd.2011.11.002.
  25. ^ "Existential OCD". Intrusive Thoughts. Retrieved 2019-03-04.
  26. ^ Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  27. ^ Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013. pp. 235–264. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  28. ^ a b The Treatment of Obsessions by Stanley Rachman. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., 2003 Reviewed by Dean McKay, Ph.D., A.B.P.P. Fordham University, Bronx, New York
  29. ^ a b Concepts and Controversies in Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder Source: Springer Science, Business Media Author(s): Abramowitz, Jonathan S.; Houts, Arthur C.
  30. ^ G.S. Steketee, R.O. Frost, J. Rhéaume and S. Wilhelm, Cognitive theory and treatment of obsessive–compulsive disorder. In: MA Jenike, L Baer and WE Minichiello (Eds.), Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder: Theory and Management. (3rd ed., pp 368-399) Chicago: Mosby.
  31. ^ "OCD ONLINE - What is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for O.C.D.?". Archived from the original on 2005-03-22.
  32. ^ Understanding and Treating Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; 1 edition (September 2, 2005)
  33. ^ Purdon, C.A. & Clark, D.A. (2005). Overcoming Obsessive Thoughts: How to gain control of your OCD. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  34. ^ Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Research, By B. E. Ling, 2005. Nova Science Pub Inc. Page 128


  • The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts by Lee Baer, Ph.D.
  • The Treatment of Obsessions (Medicine) by Stanley Rachman. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Brain lock: Free yourself from obsessive-compulsive behavior: A four-step self-treatment method to change your brain chemistry by Jeffrey Schwartz and Beverly Beyette. New York: Regan Books, 1997. ISBN 0-06-098711-1.
  • The OCD Workbook by Bruce Hyman and Cherry Pedrick.
  • Overcoming obsessive thoughts. How to gain control of your OCD by David A. Clark, Ph.D. and Christine Purdon, Ph.D.
  • Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon. London: Headline, 2016. ISBN 1472232089.

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