Admit it. A couple of minutes into your commute, you’ve questioned whether the stove is off, the door is locked or the sink faucet is on.
“Those are all perfectly normal behaviors,” said Nancy Ryba Panza, an associate professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton.
However, these “normal behaviors” could become a serious problem for those diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.
OCD is “a mental health disorder that is mainly defined by the presence of obsessions and compulsions,” Panza said.
Otherwise normal behavior becomes abnormal when the individual becomes so fixated on a certain ritual, fear or thought that it begins to have an effect on their day-to-day lives, Panza said.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 2.2 million American adults suffer from OCD.
While it’s possible to have just obsessions or just compulsions, a mixture of both is usually found in those diagnosed with OCD, Panza said.
The obsessions are the persistent thoughts that eventually cause stress or distress in the individual. Compulsions are the behaviors that the individual repeatedly carries out.
The 2014 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders updated OCD to its own category. Previously, it sat underneath anxiety disorders.
The average age of onset for OCD is late teens and early 20s, Panza said.
She labeled this time in one’s life as “very sensitive,” as individuals venture past adolescence and into adulthood.
“In most cases, it’s a slow onset,” she said. “Over time it tends to build on itself and get worse.”
When does the behavior become problematic?
“It becomes a problem when it becomes a problem,” Panza said.
For example, worrying about germs isn’t a bad thing. However obsessing over germs and washing your hands so much that the skin begins to chafe or crack is a problem, she said.
When individuals have trouble going about their daily life and are experiencing significant distress, it has become a problem worth reaching out for help, she said.
The level of treatment varies according to how much insight the individual has about his or her disorder.
“It depends on the person and their level of awareness and acceptance,” she said. “Some people are really aware of what they are doing. They know that what they are doing or thinking is not true, but they just can’t quite control it.”
While there are medications available for individuals who have been diagnosed with OCD, they primarily serve to diminish anxiety and depression.
The most effective way to deal with OCD is through therapy, Panza said, adding that the most common treatment for the mental disability is exposure and response prevention.
“This means exposing the person to the fear stimulus,” she said. “It’s straightforward in what you’re doing but it’s very hard for the person.”
For example, if the individual diagnosed with OCD has obsessive thoughts and compulsions about cleanliness, a therapist might ask them to stick their hand in a bucket of dirt, Panza said.
“If they hold with it, the anxiety peaks and then it subsides,” she said.
The treatment offers individuals with OCD the ability to face their fears or obsessive thoughts in a guided and supervised environment.
“Most of the obsessions are fear or anxiety driven,” said Panza, adding that there are also a number of other obsessions like a fear of harming loved ones, counting things, repeatedly checking things or reordering things in a particular manner.
“The prognosis is really good,” she said.
While there is some linkage to genetics, the cause of OCD is still not fully understood.
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