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People with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have a compulsion to perform the same acts over and over. For example, someone with OCD might wash their hands hundreds of times.

Neuroscientists think that people with OCD have abnormalities in certain areas of their brains, and these abnormalities prevent them from completely feeling relief from anxiety.

For instance, suppose you – someone who does not have OCD - accidently get some dirt on your hands.  You feel uncomfortable, perhaps ashamed, perhaps worried that you will transfer the dirt to your clothing. As soon as you have the opportunity, you wash your hands. Once your hands are clean, you feel relieved and your negative thoughts go away.

Someone with OCD never achieves that sense of relief, however.

They feel a little bit better after they’ve washed their hands once, but they don’t feel 100% better. Since they did experience some relief, they imagine that if they only washed their hands again, they would feel even better.  That doesn’t bring them total relief, so they wash them again. And again. And again.

Because of this, people with OCD have very high levels of anxiety.

How does this affect the dreams of people with OCD?

Many common dream themes already have an “OCD” character – they involve being unable to compete a task, accompanied by feelings of anxiety.  Dream themes of this nature include missing a bus or a train, being unprepared for a test or failing a test, not being able to find a toilet, not being dressed properly for an occasion, and so on. One of the most common dreams – of being chased – can be considerd an OCD-type  dream – no matter what you do, you cannot experience the relief of escaping your pursuer.

In addition, content analyses of dreams have shown that most dreams of normal people have negative emotional content; neuroscientists have associated this with activity in the amygdala during dreaming.

Are anxiety – provoking dreams more common in people with OCD? A number of studies have attempted to determine this.

There have been conflicting results.

Some have shown no relationship between OCD and dream content.

However, a 2010 study revealed that the dreams of OCD inpatients had fewer positive elements than those of healthy controls, and OCD inpatients had fewer OCD-themed dreams after they received exposure treatment for their OCD.

A more recent study, by Calvin Kai-Ching Yu of Hong Kong Shue Yan University, which was published in the March 2013 issue of the journal Dreaming, also shows a correlation between OCD and dreams with negative emotional content.  In this study, 594 secondary school graduates who were considering admission to the university had to complete a series of surveys that measured their OCD tendencies as well as their propensity for certain types of dreams.

Yu also found a correlation between OCD and magical thinking – the idea that your thoughts can make things happen.  Magical thinking can involve a belief that you can make other people think and behave in certain ways – if you want someone to call you, you can make them call you just by thinking about it.

It is common for children up to the age of seven to engage in magical thinking before they have developed the ability to think logically. For example, if someone close to a child dies, the child, who does not understand what causes people to die, may think that they have done something to make the deceased go away forever.  They may believe that they can make something bad happen by wishing it to happen.

Older children and adults sometimes still use this type of thinking, but magical thinking usually decreases as we mature, think more logically and understand more about cause and effect.

Magical thinking is a characteristic of schizotypal personality disorder. According to Yu, having OCD increases the risk of having schizotypal disorder.

Yu believes the compulsions of OCD can be a remnant of childhood magical thinking.  People with OCD believe, unconsciously, that by performing certain activities repeatedly, they can control external events


Huey, E.D. et al. (2008). A Psychological and Neuroanatomical Model of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 20:390-408.

Kuelz, A.K. et al. (2010). Dream Recall and Dream Content in Obsessive-Compulsive Patients: Is There a Change During Exposure Treatment? Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 198:8, 593-596.

Yu, C.K. (2013). Obsessive-compulsive distress and its dynamic associations with schizotypy, borderline personality, and dreaming.  Dreaming, 23:1, 46-53.