Many people living with OCD experience symptoms and compulsions related to their body and body functions. This is referred to as somatic OCD.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic mental health condition involving intrusive and unwanted obsessions and compulsive behaviors. OCD can take many different forms, known as subtypes, depending on the nature of someone’s obsessions.

Somatic OCD, also known as sensorimotor OCD, is a type of OCD in which the obsessions revolve around “somatic,” or physical, symptoms. Typically, the focus is on automatic bodily functions and processes, such as blinking, breathing, or moving.

Ahead, we’ll explore more about what somatic OCD is, including what can cause this type of OCD and how treatment can help manage symptoms.

When someone has OCD, the main symptoms of the condition are obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are unwanted and repetitive intrusive thoughts, images, sensations, and urges, often related to specific themes. Compulsions are behaviors someone does to try to neutralize or reduce the obsessions and the anxiety they cause.

Somatic OCD obsessions

Obsessions in somatic OCD typically focus on the physical sensations caused by autonomic functions. Autonomic functions and processes are those that happen automatically in our bodies, such as our breathing rate, heart rate, and swallowing reflex.

People living with somatic OCD are unable to stop themselves from focusing on these sensations, which causes a significant amount of stress. Sometimes, the focus is on your own sensations, but these obsessions can extend to other people’s bodily functions, too.

Some examples of somatic OCD obsessions might include:

  • constantly noticing your bodily functions or sensations
  • paying attention to the number of times you breathe or swallow
  • frequently worrying if your heart is beating too fast or too slow
  • paying too much attention to the way you walk or move your body
  • worrying that your bodily functions aren’t working properly
  • fearing that you won’t be able to stop noticing these sensations

Somatic OCD compulsions

Somatic OCD obsessions can be extremely distressing and create a significant amount of anxiety for the person experiencing them.

Because of this, people with somatic OCD engage in behaviors called compulsions. Compulsions include any mental or physical actions intended to neutralize the obsessions and the anxiety they cause.

Some examples of somatic OCD compulsions include:

  • constantly thinking (ruminating) over why you’re experiencing these obsessions
  • finding a distraction to avoid having to think about bodily sensations
  • avoiding situations that would cause you to experience certain sensations
  • counting the number of times you experience a specific sensation
  • researching whether or not your physical sensations are normal
  • asking for reassurance that what you’re experiencing physically is normal

Is somatic OCD rare?

OCD obsessions can latch on to just about any theme, but some subtypes are more common than others. For example, older research suggests that 75% of people with OCD will experience checking OCD and contamination OCD, making these two of the most common themes.

In one early study from 1986, researchers found that 34% of participants with OCD experienced somatic obsessions, though not necessarily somatic OCD. A more recent study from 2020 on OCD and life events found that a little over 14% of participants reported having somatic OCD.

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Usually, an “OCD trigger” refers to one of two things. It is either what causes someone to develop OCD or what triggers OCD symptoms in people living with the condition.

Researchers are still uncovering the factors that can cause people to develop OCD. However, studies have shown that for a significant number of people with OCD, their condition developed after a stressful or traumatic event.

Some of the life events that may contribute to the development of OCD include:

  • serious illness of a loved one
  • death of a loved one
  • serious personal illness or hospitalization
  • a new relationship, engagement, or marriage
  • a breakup, separation, or divorce
  • pregnancy, childbirth, or pregnancy loss
  • difficulties at home, work, or school
  • starting a new job or losing employment
  • neglect, abuse, or assault

For people living with OCD, personal triggers can vary, but they tend to relate to the nature of the person’s obsessions. So, for people living with somatic OCD, any type of bodily function can trigger OCD obsessions and increase the urge to engage in compulsions.

Treatment options for OCD are generally the same for all of the different subtypes, including somatic OCD. Options include therapy, medications, and other procedures that can help manage long-term symptoms.

Therapy options

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common therapy approach for treating somatic OCD symptoms. With CBT, you can learn how to recognize and address the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that worsen your symptoms.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a type of CBT that specifically focuses on using exposure therapy to reduce symptoms. With ERP, you face your OCD triggers head-on and learn the coping skills you need to manage your anxiety without resorting to compulsions.

Other therapy options, like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), can be beneficial for OCD symptoms. However, ERP is so effective at treating OCD that experts consider it the gold-standard therapy approach for this condition.

Medication options

Medication is another effective treatment option for OCD, and many people benefit from both therapy and medications to manage their symptoms. Some of the most effective medication options for OCD include:

All the medications listed above are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Experts believe these may reduce OCD symptoms by affecting serotonin levels in the brain.

However, some people also see benefits with other types of medications, including serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants.

Other options

Therapy and medications are safe and effective treatment options for people living with OCD. But for some people, such as those who haven’t responded to these options, several other options may be helpful.

One of these options is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a procedure that uses electromagnetic stimulation on the nerves in your brain. Another option is deep brain stimulation, a similar procedure that uses electrical currents to stimulate brain cells.

Learn more about OCD

If you’re one of the 2.5 million adults in the United States living with OCD, you’re not alone. There is support out there. Here are some more Healthline resources to check out if you want to learn more about this condition:

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Although statistics vary when it comes to how many people live with somatic OCD, many people with OCD experience somatic obsessions in some form. And like other types of OCD, the obsessions and compulsions in somatic OCD can have a significant effect on your life.

If you find it difficult to carry out your daily activities because of your somatic OCD symptoms, it can be helpful to reach out to a doctor or therapist to discuss your concerns. With the right treatment, you can learn how to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.