There’s nothing wrong with keeping the house clean and tidy, but if you can’t do anything until you’ve bleached every single surface every day and won’t leave the house because you’re frightened of germs, you could have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Between 1% and 2% of people are thought to suffer from OCD, a recognised condition in which a person experiences recurrent upsetting thoughts or behaviours.
But while OCD is listed as one of the top 10 debilitating disorders by the World Health Organisation, there is help available for sufferers. Indeed, this week is OCD Week of Action, in which those affected by the condition are being encouraged to take the first steps towards getting help.
But how can you be sure that you really are suffering from OCD, rather than just having a few quirky habits?
The charity OCD Action says the condition has two main features: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are involuntary thoughts, doubts, images or urges which cause anxiety, and compulsions are what you do to reduce the anxiety. Because carrying out a compulsion reduces anxiety, people with OCD get the urge to do it repeatedly.
OCD Action says obsessions are usually automatic, frequent, upsetting or distressing, difficult to control or get rid of, and nearly always inconsistent with a person’s values.
Common obsessions can include:
• Fears about dirt, germs and contamination;
• Fears of acting out violent or aggressive thoughts or impulses;
• Unreasonable fears about harming others, especially loved ones;
• Disgusting or rude thoughts;
• Obsession with order, arrangement or symmetry;
• Inability to throw out useless possessions;
• Safety fears about things like household appliances.
If you think you suffer with an obsession, you may find you feel forced to repeat one or more of these compulsions:
• Excessive washing and cleaning;
• Checking (you’ve locked doors and turned appliances off, for instance);
• Repetitive actions such as touching, counting and arranging;
• Ordering things;
• Ritualistic behaviours to reduce the chances of provoking an obsession (such as hiding sharp objects);
• Acts which reduce obsessional fears (such as wearing only certain colours).
But compulsions don’t have to be seen to exist – they can also be mental, such as repeating words or phrases, or counting.
When does OCD become a problem?
Of course, most people occasionally have OCD-type thoughts, like double-checking the door’s locked. However, while most people can dismiss these thoughts, people with OCD can’t ignore them, and as a result they can affect all areas of their life.
But they can also seem perfectly normal and keep their distress a secret. OCD Action says sufferers are often afraid to seek help, because they think others will think they’re mad. But they’re not.
‘Sufferers aren’t mad’
The charity stresses:
• People with OCD aren’t mad or dangerous;
• They don’t carry out their unpleasant thoughts;
• Most people with OCD know their thoughts are excessive or irrational, but they can’t ignore them;
• At least half of adults who get help for OCD had it as children;
• There is likely to be a genetic vulnerability to developing OCD which runs in families;
• There are sometimes people with involuntary jerky movements (tics) or other mental health problems in the family of an OCD sufferer;
• OCD can be effectively controlled and treated, often with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication.
For more information about OCD, visit OCD Action.
‘It’s not a joke’
Olivia Bamber of OCD Action says that while OCD is often the target of jokes, it is no laughing matter for sufferers and their families.
“OCD is a serious mental health disorder. The impact it can have on someone’s life can be huge, but unfortunately it can often be trivialised and seen as a bit of a joke, when that is not the case,” she said.
“It’s a condition that needs to be taken seriously so that people affected by it are comfortable going to seek the treatment they deserve.”