Washing and Checking OCD

Compulsive cleaning and checking are common symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This article covers general symptoms of the washing and checking OCD subtypes, but you can click through to learn more on Contamination OCD, including its symptoms, compulsions, and treatment.

Washing and Checking OCD. Feeling dirty, needing to repeatedly check for certainty, and constantly feeling doubt are all symptoms of OCD.
Constantly feeling dirty, or that nothing is ever clean enough, often leads people to excessive hand washing or cleaning.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), despite its myriad of manifestations and nuances, is most commonly known for and portrayed as an elaborate ritual of washing and checking. Indeed, to the average therapist, much less the average person, OCD would likely be synonymous with the washing and checking routines seen on TV and movies. While Washing and Checking OCD mainly describes the common compulsions seen in this OCD subtype, the corresponding obsessions and feared thought can vary.

What is Washing and Checking OCD?

The naming of this subtype describes the most common symptom and observable behavior associated with this expression of OCD. In this case, someone suffering with washing and checking OCD experiences a series of unwanted, intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, sensations, or urges that result in tremendous anxiety and discomfort. The obsessive thought is often a feared story about what the individual will suffer, endure, cause, or feel unless they clean or check something. Washing and Checking sufferers then give into compulsory behavior in order to feel clean, safe, or otherwise get back to a sense of emotional normalcy. Unfortunately, once the sufferer achieves this temporary sense of security and cleanliness, their original obsessive thought is made stronger.

Washing and Checking Compulsions

Common washing compulsions can include:

  • Washing hands repeatedly
  • Using hand sanitizer excessively
  • Washing clothes more often than needed
  • Wiping off items without evidence they are dirty

Common checking compulsions can include:

  • Checking that appliances are off or unplugged
  • Reviewing files to ensure that they are organized correctly
  • Opening and closing doors to ensure they are fully closed
  • Waking up at night to inspect and ensure doors and windows are locked

Washing and Checking Obsessions

Washing and Checking OCD covers a wide range of fears. Unlike other anxiety and OCD subtypes that tend to focus on a very specific set of triggers, like Scrupulosity, HOCD, and phobias, Washing and Checking OCD can be connected to a number of different issues. For example, washing behaviors, like compulsive hand washing and showering, can follow from a fear of germs or virus contamination, a superstitious connection to keeping others safe, or simply the overwhelming feeling that something is not “right.”

Hand reaching to lock a door. Checking door locks, locking and unlocking in certain patterns or numbers, or locking while thinking "safe" thoughts are common compulsions for checkers. Get OCD treatment in California or online OCD counseling in Montana here.
Locking and unlocking rituals are common compulsions for those with checking OCD.

Checking behaviors associated with this OCD subtype can also be rooted in a range of feared stories. For example, someone may check their trashcan repeatedly for evidence that they did or did not throw something away accidentally. A student may check that her homework is in her backpack over and over out of fear they forgot to do it or may have done it incorrectly. Still another person may have to memorize the exact space and word placement of a text or re-read previous sentences (perhaps even in this article) to make sure they fully understood the material, or else they will feel an overwhelming sense of doom.

Washing and Checking OCD Treatment

Effective treatment for washing and checking related OCD can be done with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and mindfulness based treatments, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Clients begin by working to develop a more balanced understanding of their obsessions. First, clients must understand the root of their obsessions by identifying the feared stories that contribute to their compulsions. Once their feared stories are identified, the client begins to reevaluate the grounds for their fear and consider more rational and likely alternative outcomes of their fear.

The OCD Cycle

With this grounding in reality-based thinking, clients can begin addressing their fears head on by engaging in ERP exercises. These carefully crafted techniques help the client progressively face their fears while building confidence to resist their washing and checking routines. After repeated exposures and compulsion resistance, clients begin to notice a slow reduction of their anxiety, called habituation.

Mindfulness based treatments, such as ACT, help clients refocus on the present moment while disconnecting from the feared story. Clients often discover that their anxiety and fear is what they currently experience, not their feared story! What’s more important, is that their anxiety gradually reduces. ACT helps create a framework for clients to accept their thoughts and feelings while actively engaging in truly valued activities.

To learn more about washing and checking OCD, or to schedule an assessment, please contact me here.

The California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center offers specialized therapy for Washing (Contamination) and Checking OCD in its Fullerton offices. In addition to serving North Orange County, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire, CalOCD offers online therapy, group therapy, and Intensive Out-Patient treatment.


6 thoughts on “Washing and Checking OCD”

  • The key to our self-directed behavioral therapy approach to treating OCD can be summed up in one sentence: It’s not me–it’s my OCD. That is our battle cry. It is a reminder that OCD thoughts and urges are not meaningful, that they are false messages from the brain. Self-directed behavior therapy lets you gain a deeper understanding of this truth. You are working toward a deep understanding of why the urge to check that lock or why the thought that my hands are dirty can be so powerful and overwhelming. If you know the thought makes no sense, why do you respond to it? Understanding why the thought is so strong and why it won’t go away is the key to increasing your willpower and enabling you to fight off the urge to wash or check.

    • Well said. Yes, when you recognize that not all our thoughts are important, and that some of them are completely irrational and useless, you can build the confidence to resist and ignore the useless ones. Of course, doing this will feel likely you are putting yourself in harms way, but overtime you’ll learn to trust that the worst case scenario is HIGHLY unlikely. As you said, it requires a great deal of willingness, but that can be built slowly by starting small.

  • Have you ever heard of using psilocybin to treat OCD, and if so, do you approve if it and have you seen positive outcomes?

    • Hi Jordy,

      Using controlled amounts of psychedelics to treat mental health disorders seems to be a hot topic these days. Obviously, with the rise of medical marijuana, researchers and clients are curious about other recreational drugs can be used for medicinal purposes. So, you pose a good question.

      However, I unfortunately do not know enough about the subject to hold an opinion. For medical questions, such as this, I usually refer the person asking back to their psychiatrist or prescribing physician. Until more information comes out resulting in a majority consensus by the medical community, I will continue advocating for traditional medical intervention.

      If you are interested in this subject for personal use, I highly recommend doing more research on the subject and discussing it with your doctor.

      Thanks again for the question!

  • Thank you so much for responding. I’m so surprised I heard back from you. It shows how much empathy and integrity you have. I did talk to my psychiatrist and I have done a lot of research on the subject. Did you see the segment on 60 Minutes last Sunday that Anderson Cooper hosted?
    Also, are you taking on any new clients? I live in Michigan, but with everyone using Zoom these days, you’ve probably expanded your practice, creating all new possibilities.

    • Thanks so much! No, I have not seen any Anderson Cooper shows about OCD.

      Unfortunately I cannot see any clients in Michigan due to my lack of license to work as a therapist in that state. There are plenty of great therapists in every state, but I know they can be difficult to find. Hopefully your search comes up with a good one!

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