Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Staring OCD: Is this the reason you can’t stop staring?

Mar 29, 20248 minute read

compulsive staring and OCD

Do you feel constantly aware of where you’re looking? Are you worried you look at people too often or at inappropriate times? Does staring make you feel anxious, but you’re not sure why or how to stop? Or does a random intrusive urge to stare at something or someone pop into your head every now and then?

Maybe you’ve heard a little bit about OCD and are wondering if your staring patterns could be connected to the condition. If so, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn more about staring OCD, based on insights from myself and other experts in the field.

What is staring OCD?

Staring OCD is a general, non-scientific way to describe one way that OCD can present. It involves fear and worry about staring, or the actual behavior of staring in order to solve a particular worry or due to a random urge. Tracie Zinman-Ibrahim, LMFT, CST, a clinician at NOCD—the leading telehealth provider of specialized OCD treatment—says you might also see it called ocular tourettic OCD, though it is not the same as tourette’s syndrome. 

Those with staring OCD might feel judgmental of themselves and experience shame, guilt, and embarrassment over their staring behaviors. Unfortunately, according to one meta-analysis, shame is highly common among those with OCD. However, it’s important to know that this behavior does not make you strange, weird, or bad. 

Those with OCD do not enjoy or want their obsessions and compulsions. OCD is not a character flaw, but a disorder that you can get treatment for. Having compassion for yourself can only help in your journey of recovery. Self-judgment, on the other hand, is not helpful.

“Who you are as a person really has nothing to do with OCD. OCD happens to you, and you are just somebody who has it,” says Zinman-Ibrahim.  

What are the signs and symptoms of staring OCD?

All types of OCD include distinct, specific obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions describe the experience of repetitive, unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings followed by intense distress over those intrusions. Distress can feel like anxiety, panic, fear, shame, guilt, embarrassment, or other uncomfortable feelings. 

“One of the ways staring OCD presents is as a fear that you’re losing control of where your eyes look, and that you’re going to look somewhere inappropriate—such as staring at someone’s breasts, for example,” Zinman-Ibrahim explains.

Specific examples of obsessions related to staring might sound like:

Those with OCD feel desperate to solve or get to the bottom of their intrusive thoughts. This is where compulsions come in. Compulsions can be a physical, outward action, or a mental, internal action. What’s important is that they are done in the hopes of getting rid of intrusive thoughts, relieving the distress they bring, or preventing a feared outcome from happening. 

Staring can be a compulsion that may or may not be related to obsessions about staring. Zinman-Ibrahim gives the example of staring at stove knobs to make sure they’re really off. In this case, the obsession is about whether or not the stove is turned off, and staring is the compulsion done to solve that obsession.

Other examples of staring-related compulsions include:

  • Forcing yourself to stare at someone in order to test yourself for physical attraction
  • Forcing yourself to stare at someone to test yourself for signs of wanting to commit physical violence
  • Forcing yourself not to stare at someone because you think it says something bad about you if you do stare
  • Counting how many times you catch yourself staring, believing that as long as it’s under a certain number, everything is okay
  • Forcing yourself to blink because that breaks your stare and means that something bad won’t happen
  • Ruminating on what it means that you stare, attempting to get to the bottom of the behavior. You may think in circles trying to figure it out.
  • Avoiding situations that may cause you to stare, such as social situations or being in a public place where there’s a lot to look at
  • Reading article after article online about staring and whether or not it’s bad
  • Distracting yourself from your intrusive thoughts about staring by, for example, scrolling on your phone or reading a book

Compulsions bring temporary relief to the OCD sufferer. However, they are not a long-term solution. In fact, they just perpetuate the disorder by reinforcing your belief that intrusive thoughts are a dangerous threat that you have to take seriously. 

Dr. Evan Vida, PsyD, a psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Behavior Therapy, explains the cycle of obsessions and compulsions like a barking dog begging for table scraps: 

“Let’s say I am sitting down at my table to enjoy a nice steak. My dog, June, also happens to really like steak and would love a piece for herself. June is going to do whatever she can to get that steak. So, she starts barking at me (obsession). This is quite annoying! Eventually I get so annoyed that I throw her a piece of my steak to get her to stop barking (compulsion). Unfortunately, June just learned that this is an effective strategy to get my food, so she will repeat it as soon as she’s done chewing. I will get annoyed again and in order to enjoy my meal in peace, I get stuck in a loop of feeding June table scraps every time she barks.”

The treatment of OCD, therefore, focuses on learning not to respond to the barking.

What triggers staring OCD?

Your obsessions can be triggered by just about anything, and it varies from person to person. Here are some examples of triggers for obsessions related to staring:

  • Social situations. The more people you’re around and interacting with, the more you’re likely thinking about where your eyes are looking.
  • Important events, such as a job interview or giving a presentation. In these situations, it might feel incredibly important that you’re perceived well, which can trigger you to start worrying about where you’re looking.
  • Someone talking about a creepy person who wouldn’t stop looking at them. This might prompt you to start worrying that you’re a creepy person who won’t stop staring at people.
  • Being in a setting where people aren’t wearing a lot of clothing, like a pool, beach, or gym. You may fear that no matter where you look, you’ll be staring at someone inappropriately.

Depending on how much awareness you have of your obsessions and compulsions, you may or may not know what your triggers are. Sometimes, obsessions and compulsions become so automatic that you don’t recognize what comes before them. If you don’t know what your triggers are, don’t worry. A therapist can help you cultivate that awareness. 

Could there be other reasons I compulsively stare?

The best way to know if you have OCD is to consult with an OCD specialist, but if you don’t resonate with the experience of distinct obsessions and compulsions, there are a couple other conditions to know about.

The first is social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder is characterized by an intense fear of being judged, humiliated, or embarrassed by others. Those with this condition might struggle with eye contact or worry that others will think poorly of them if they’re staring at someone. 

This can lead to feeling like their staring or eye contact habits are out of control, and like it’s something they have to do or not do. This is different from an OCD compulsion in that it’s not preceded by obsessions—rather, it’s an effect of general anxieties and worries. 

The other condition worth noting is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is not a mental health condition but a neurological difference. The experience of ASD is widely varied, and no two experiences are exactly the same. However, in some cases, those with ASD struggle to understand social cues and norms. They may stare as a means of trying to figure out a certain social situation. Moreover, because of the misunderstanding surrounding ASD, those with the disorder can also be prone to social anxiety based on being mistreated by others in the past. 

Again, OCD is an entirely different experience that includes the presence of obsessions and compulsions.

How can you get help for staring OCD?

The evidence-based, frontline treatment for OCD (and social anxiety disorder) is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). In some cases, ERP is combined with another evidence-based treatment for OCD: medication. The class of medication used most commonly to treat these conditions is called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), but a psychiatrist or other medical provider will be able to best determine what’s right for you.

ERP works by gradually teaching your brain that you can tolerate anxiety, doubt, fear, or uncertainty without engaging in compulsions. You’ll learn that your intrusive thoughts and urges don’t have to wield any power over you, even when they’re uncomfortable or scary. With practice, you’ll also gain a greater tolerance for uncertainty throughout your life—even about your intrusive thoughts themselves. 

For example, if the thought that you could appear inappropriate or “creepy” is causing you intense worry or anxiety, you’d work with a therapist to accept uncertainty around these fears, rather than needing to know for sure. “In order to push past OCD, you have to accept uncertainty in life—which is what everybody else without OCD also accepts,” explains April Kilduff, LCPC, LPCC, LMHC, an OCD specialist. “It’s just that OCD makes it seem like it’s really, really important that get absolute certainty about your thoughts.”

In most cases, ERP has a profound impact on the lives of people who engage in it. You will feel like you have more and more power while OCD has less and less. And your values, identity, and sense of control no longer feel like they’re at risk of slipping away. 

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