Often people refer to themselves or others as “OCD” when they are highly organised or have quirky habits. This is not the meaning of OCD nor should it be used as an adjective.
What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?
OCD is short for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, it is a mental health disorder made up of two main parts; recurrent obsessions and compulsive behaviours. Individuals who suffer from OCD typically experience thoughts that cause them significant anxiety and distress. Often these obsessive thoughts become more frequent or intense with time. As such, the individual tries to find alternative ways to cope with their distress. These coping mechanisms are made up of compulsive behaviours that feel necessary, repetitive, ritualistic and purposeful, in an attempt to prevent or reduce the obsessive thoughts.
Not all obsessions, superstitions, rituals, avoidance behaviours, or habits mean that an individual should be diagnosed with OCD. A diagnosis of OCD involves obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that are all-consuming, cause significant distress to the individual, take a lot of time out of the individual’s day or generally impact their ability to engage in everyday tasks.
Here is the pattern of OCD
OCD is often experienced as a vicious cycle. It starts with an obsessive thought that creates feelings of anxiety. The anxiety causes distress which can be temporarily alleviated by a certain behaviour.
The more we experience this cycle, the more compulsive the behaviours become. The next time the individual experiences that same thought, the need to engage in the behaviour is reinforced by the temporary anxiety relief experienced in the previous cycle.
After leaving for work, Jenny experienced the thought “did I turn off the stove”. Even though she was 99% sure that she turned it off, she still experienced doubt, causing her to obsess over the stove and her actions. The more she thought about it, the more anxious she would feel. As a result, she returned home to check the stove, which happened to be off.
The next day while on her way to work, Jenny once again had the same thought about the stove. The thought became louder and louder, until she couldn’t think about anything else. This made her feel very anxious. Last time, checking made Jenny feel better, so once again Jenny returned home to check. It was off, and Jenny’s anxiety quickly reduced.
This cycle occurred most mornings, and Jenny found it more and more difficult to be sure if she had turned off the stove. Eventually, for Jenny to reduce her distress when thinking about the stove, she would need to physically turn the stove on and off to confirm it was off in her mind. This then became a ritual of turning the stove on and off three times before she could leave the house.
We can see from this example, Jenny’s brain made an association between the stove (obsessive thought) and checking that it was off (compulsive behaviour). The ritual of turning the stove on and off 3 times had previously provided her with anxiety relief, therefore it became more and more necessary for Jenny to maintain this cycle in order to feel ok when leaving the house.
Here are some other common obsessions you may have experienced:
- Fear of contamination
- Intrusive violent, explicit or sexual thoughts,
- Order and symmetry,
- Superstitions; or
- Fear of losing control and harming others or yourself.
Here are some other common compulsions you may have experienced:
- Repetition of words or chants,
- Washing or cleaning,
- Arranging or ordering things in particular ways; or
- Repeatedly checking on family and friends to ensure they are safe.
If you are struggling with anxiety, obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviours, you are not alone. There are several proven psychological therapies for anxiety-related disorders that can help you gain control over your worries, decrease your anxiety, teach you new adaptive ways of coping, and improve your quality of life. Sometimes we need a little help to develop tools to understand and manage our symptoms.