Responsibility OCD involves an exaggerated sense of responsibility and a fear of unintentionally causing harm to others.

To some extent, we all feel responsible in life, whether for our loved ones’ safety, our pets, or our community. It’s normal to take precautions to avoid causing harm and to apologize if we accidentally cause harm.

But what if that sense of responsibility becomes overwhelming? Imagine dropping a piece of ice on a restaurant floor. You try to discreetly kick it under the table to prevent any accidents, but you end up consumed by obsessive worries all night, fearing that someone might have slipped.

This experience is often called responsibility OCD.

Responsibility OCD is a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which you experience an intense and irrational belief that you’re responsible for preventing harm or negative events, even when they’re beyond your control.

You experience persistent and distressing thoughts related to your heightened sense of responsibility, including fears of causing harm, a belief that you can prevent disasters through specific actions, and excessive concern about moral responsibilities.

To cope with these distressing thoughts, you engage in compulsive behaviors such as repetitively checking certain things, seeking reassurance, or performing rituals to prevent perceived harm.

Responsibility OCD involves a specific set of symptoms that revolve around an exaggerated sense of responsibility.

These symptoms may include:

  • experiencing intrusive thoughts about causing accidental or unintentional harm through your actions or negligence (this differs from harm OCD, which involves a fear of intentionally harming others)
  • worrying excessively about preventing negative outcomes
  • engaging in compulsive checking behaviors
  • seeking reassurance from others
  • engaging in rituals to prevent perceived harm

People with OCD have varying levels of insight into their condition. This may range from recognizing that obsessions are irrational (good/fair insight) to believing that they’re justified (poor insight) or even that they’re delusional.

Research suggests that poor insight into OCD is associated with severe symptoms, longer duration, worse outcomes, and more co-occurring conditions.

Here are two examples of what responsibility OCD might look like for someone.

Fear of someone getting injured

John believes he’s responsible for preventing accidents and injuries, even in situations beyond his control.

  • Obsession: While walking in a park, John notices a few sticks on the path and becomes fixated on the idea that if he doesn’t pick up every stick, someone might trip and break their leg.
  • Compulsion: John stops to pick up each stick, deviating from his planned route. Due to his extreme anxiety, he cannot continue his walk until he has cleared the path entirely. He believes that if someone were to get injured as a result of any potential hazards left behind, it would be his fault.

Fear of causing an earthquake

Jessica struggles with responsibility OCD, which is compounded by magical thinking. She has an irrational fear that if she doesn’t perform certain rituals, she’ll be responsible for causing an earthquake in her city.

  • Obsession: Jessica becomes obsessed with the idea that she has the power to trigger earthquakes if she doesn’t follow her rituals meticulously. She believes that her actions (or lack thereof) can influence seismic events, even though she logically knows this isn’t true.
  • Compulsion and magical thinking: To prevent the earthquake, Jessica engages in complex rituals. Several times a day, she must touch each piece of furniture in her home three times and then knock on wood three times. She believes this will appease some unknown force and prevent disaster. If she misses a step, she experiences intense anxiety and believes that an earthquake might occur due to her negligence.

As with OCD in general, the exact cause of responsibility OCD isn’t fully understood and is believed to be influenced by a combination of factors, such as the following.

  • Genetics: Research suggests that OCD is influenced by many genes, with each having a small impact. Additionally, it shares genetic links with other mental health conditions often seen in people with OCD.
  • Environment: Stressful life events may trigger or worsen OCD symptoms in people who are predisposed to it. A 2-year study in adolescents found that stressful life events predicted the development of obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  • Neurological factors: Brain imaging studies have shown differences in the structure and functioning of specific brain regions in people with OCD. A 2019 analysis of previous studies found that people with OCD had hyperactivity in areas of the brain linked to error processing and reduced activation in areas associated with impulse control.
  • Temperament: Certain personality traits may be linked to the development or course of OCD. One 2023 study found that people with lower levels of extraversion were less likely to enter remission over a 3-year period. Other traits, such as neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, were not associated with remission.

Notably, in OCD, different types of obsessions or themes don’t have separate causes. Many therapists emphasize that the themes themselves are not the primary focus — rather, the underlying thoughts driven by excessive fear characterize OCD.

Responsibility OCD risk factors

The primary risk factors for OCD include:

  • Genetics: Having a parent or sibling who has OCD increases a person’s chance of developing it.
  • Brain structure and functioning: Differences in certain areas of the brain may play a role in OCD development.
  • Stressful life events: Although more research is needed, a 2019 study suggests a link between stressful life events and the development of obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  • Personality traits: People with OCD generally display more neuroticism and less extraversion than people who do not have the condition.
  • Childhood infections: In some cases, childhood streptococcal infections have been linked to a condition called pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS), which can trigger OCD symptoms.

Here are some tips for managing responsibility OCD:

  • Educate yourself: To better understand your condition, learn about OCD, especially the subtype related to excessive responsibility.
  • Recognize obsessive thoughts: Become aware of your obsessive thoughts and identify triggers that lead to them.
  • Try exposure therapy: You can work on facing your fears, preferably with the help of an therapist specializing in OCD. Make a list of the specific situations or thoughts that trigger your excessive responsibility obsessions. Start with exposure exercises that are mildly anxiety-provoking and slowly work your way to more distressing situations.
  • Stay in the moment: During exposures, focus on being in the present moment. Avoid engaging in compulsive behaviors or rituals to reduce your anxiety. Instead, allow yourself to experience the discomfort.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques and relaxation exercises may help reduce anxiety and stress.
  • Seek out a support group: OCD support groups can provide valuable insights and emotional support.

Treatment options for responsibility OCD typically include:

  • Therapy: One common type of therapy for OCD is exposure and response prevention therapy, which helps you confront and reduce obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Another common method is cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Medication: In some cases, a healthcare professional may prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or other medications to help relieve OCD symptoms.
  • Lifestyle strategies: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep can complement your treatment.

Responsibility OCD is a subtype of OCD that involves an exaggerated sense of responsibility for preventing harm. It can lead to distressing obsessions and compulsive behaviors that significantly affect your daily life.

If you or someone you know is dealing with responsibility OCD, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional. Recognizing your symptoms and exploring treatment options such as therapy and medication can help you manage your condition and enhance your quality of life.