By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
Have you ever stepped outside, then began to wonder if you turned off the stove … so you ran back inside to check it? Perfectly natural!
Have ever been to a place and when you returned home, felt full of germs … so you disinfected your hands, maybe twice? Perfectly natural!
Have you jumped into bed, then began to wonder if you turned off the lights or locked the car … so you got out and checked? Perfectly natural!
Do you have a certain superstition, such as always putting the right leg into your pants first, then the left, thinking that this will help you start the day more in control? Perfectly natural!
The truth is that many of us have focused thoughts or repeated behaviors or feel a need to double-check something to ascertain that all is OK. Perfectly natural!
But what if certain obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors become so consuming that they interfere with your daily life? No matter what you do, you can’t seem to shake them … and the thoughts are so persistent and the unwanted routines or behaviors are so rigid, not doing them causes extreme distress.
The thoughts are not singular but pervasive, and it seems impossible to rid yourself from the loop that you get caught up in. The ritualistic behaviors are so demanding that you cannot step outside of the behaviors to move on about your day, and they seem to control you.
If you suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become so consuming that they will interfere with your daily life. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to shake free.
But the good news is that there is hope: You CAN break free of the unwanted, pervasive thoughts and irrational urges and take back control of your life.
While at its extreme this condition most likely will require professional help, the truth is that it is worth it because you get your life back and feel freedom from the condition. An OCD diagnosis requires the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions that are time-consuming (more than one hour per day), cause major distress and impair work, social life or other important functioning.
Approximately 1-2% of the American population suffers from this disorder, and it absolutely can be debilitating.
Let’s break it down:
Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses or images that cause distressing emotions such as anxiety, disgust or overwhelm.
Often, one will recognize that these thoughts, impulses or images are a product of their mind and that they are excessive and unreasonable; however, the thoughts are so extreme that they cannot be settled or tackled by logic or reasoning.
A gentleman I once counseled was so controlled by his excessive hand-washing that his hands were raw and red from the action.
He claimed that he would go to a restaurant or to a theatre or to a friend’s/relative’s home, and once arriving back at his own home he would spend the entire evening trying to rid himself of the germs. In addition, he was not able to handle any items from the desk of a colleague for fear that he would get into the hand-washing cycle.
Using the restroom in a public place (or ANY place that was not his home) was entirely out of the question. His life was controlled by his obsessive fear of germs and filth.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. The behaviors are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or a feared situation.
In the most severe cases, a constant repetition of rituals may fill the day, making a normal routine impossible. Compounding the anguish of these ritualistic behaviors is the understanding that the compulsions are irrational; however, this realization does not change things.
I once counseled a young woman whose occupation was as a teller at a bank. At the end of the work day, she had to make sure her “drawer” (where she kept the day’s transactions and cash) balanced. Though she would balance it to the penny, she often stayed until the wee hours of the morning double-checking and triple-checking, and she could never quite satisfy herself that the task was finished.
Once home, she would perseverate over the fear that she had left something undone with her drawer and that she would get fired. Needless to say, her life became controlled by the fear and obsession that her job was always in jeopardy because she could not rest in the reality that her work was complete and well done.
While striving for excellence in a job well done is a wonderful attribute, the excessive and pervasive over-performing of tasks is way out of bounds. And while cleanliness is a virtue, excessive and obsessive worries about germs that invade every waking moment is absolutely life-impacting.
If you, or a loved one, suffers from the extreme nature of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, there ABSOLUTELY is help and relief. Don’t be ashamed – share your angst with a trusted therapist and find FREEDOM!
That gentleman and that young woman? They are living in freedom because they risked letting their angst be known and endeavored to conquer it!