Have you ever heard someone say they’re a bit “OCD” about keeping their house clean, or checking that appliances are off, that kind of thing? Of course, it isn’t intended to be insulting, but for the thousands of people around the world who really do suffer from what can be a debilitating mental health problem, it can be frustrating.
Here are 6 things to help clear up what OCD actually is, and why it’s very different from just being highly organized or tidy.
1. OCD is a Form of Anxiety Disorder
OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a disorder related to anxiety which causes the person to have obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions. About one out of every 200 Americans will have had OCD at some point in their life, and it’s estimated that about 3.3 million people (mostly adults) may have the disorder. But what do we mean by “obsessions” and “compulsions” anyway?
Obsessions are defined as a persistent unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that causes someone to feel disgust, fear or unease. For instance, a persistent concern about germs or fear of disease. Another obsession may not be related to physical things at all, for instance some OCD sufferers report a sense of impending doom, that they might be about to die or that a family member might be about to suffer an horrific accident.
A compulsion, which arises as a result of the obsession, is a behavior, like tapping something or flicking a switch, or a mental act like saying a name or phrase, or imagining a particular scenario, that a sufferer feels they must engage in so they can relieve the unpleasant feelings or somehow prevent the obsessive thought from becoming reality.
2. What Causes OCD?
Scientists don’t yet know. There does seem to be a genetic predisposition to this kind of disorder, with OCD and related conditions often running in families. Brain imaging studies also show that people with OCD have different brain activity to people who don’t suffer the disorder. They may also have lower levels of the chemical serotonin, a neuro-transmitter that is required for proper brain function and mood control.
It’s likely that early childhood experiences also contribute to developing OCD, as might long and severe periods of stress in adult life. For example, war veterans may have higher rates of acute OCD over the general population and this could be because their brains are desperately trying to work through the traumatic events they encountered while in action.
3. A Self-Confessed Neat Freak? You Might Be at Greater Risk of OCD
Liking things clean and tidy does not mean you have OCD. We’ve all got things that we’re a bit particular about, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it is true that if you have a personality type where you like to have everything just so, you probably are at an elevated risk of developing OCD. This is because so called “perfectionists” tend to manage their stress levels by cleaning and tidying, organizing and ensuring every little detail is just right. It gives control and security and in general is a good coping mechanism. However, there can be a fine line between perfectionism and OCD and perfectionists may find that they become stressed if they haven’t performed their ritualistic behaviors, like organizing their wardrobes and washing their hands thoroughly, to the point where they begin to become obsessed with these rituals, which then creates more compulsions.
Of course most perfectionists will stay on the healthy side of the line, but they together with people who also suffer anxiety disorders may feel it’s necessary to check in with their doctors if they feel their coping strategies are becoming unhealthy.
4. Many Successful People Have OCD
While we have to be careful of mythologizing or romanticizing the notion of OCD, something that has happened with autism and savantism, it is true that many people who have reached the top of their professions confess to having OCD and may say that the traits underpinning their OCD have probably helped them be successful. From soccer star David Beckham to actor Cameron Diaz, there are many people who have learned to manage their symptoms of OCD while holding down demanding jobs. Charles Darwin and Nikola Tesla (though Tesla’s condition was sometimes quite debilitating and often extreme) also reportedly suffered from OCD. For a more complete list of notable people with OCD, please click here.
5. OCD is Cruel and Can Ruin People’s Lives
At the same time, while for some people OCD behavior can be limited (especially with medical and therapeutic intervention, more on that below), OCD can be a terrible burden. Obsessive thoughts that lead to compulsions can take over someone’s life to the point where they may feel suicidal. What is even more awful is that the person is often aware that their compulsions and thoughts are irrational and illogical, and yet they often cannot stop themselves from these behaviors, making them feel trapped and like life is not worth living.
This can mean they can’t hold down a job, are unable maintain relationships, and have an overall poor quality of life. If you’d like to know what it’s like to live with OCD, here are some personal stories from OCD sufferers.
6. OCD is Highly Treatable
As with most mental health conditions, OCD may never completely disappear, but it can be treated so that it becomes more manageable and the success rate is moderate to high depending on a sufferer’s personal circumstances.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help a sufferer learn to interrupt obsessive thoughts and control their compulsions. Therapy can also help to uncover what is behind the anxiety driving the OCD and help to reduce those feelings which, in turn, can help reduce OCD symptoms. Sufferers may also receive drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are proven to help reduce OCD symptoms by correcting chemical imbalances in the brain.
If you would like to find out more about OCD and its symptoms, please click here.