You hear the jokes all the time, “I keep my house so clean because I’m OCD!” or “I’m OCD about washing my hands!”
Unfortunately, for those suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder life hardly feels like a joke.
“There is a big difference between someone who is obsessive about something and those who perform compulsions,” says Shayla Peterson of Trinity Behavioral Health Services in Clarksville. “Obsession is a personality style with adaptive features, whereas the trait of being obsessive represents a mental disorder that is often considered debilitating.”
Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thought leading to intense anxiety, which often leads to the performance of compulsions as a way to reduce anxiety and unease. For many suffering from OCD, the condition is debilitating and intrusive to daily life.
“A lot of people with OCD find themselves unable to perform simple tasks due to their need to perform their compulsions,” says licensed therapist Rebecca Townsend of Clarksville, Tennessee. “Often these actions are perfectly innocent. Washing your hands is a perfectly fine and healthy habit. When you’re 30 minutes late to work because you needed to wash your hands 20 times, though, it becomes a problem.”
While the exact cause of OCD is unknown, many professionals believe it to be associated with above-average intelligence and diseases in which hyperfocus exists, such as ADHD and PTSD.
Some professionals believe OCD is exacerbated by the highly visible society in which we live. In a world where your every Google search is documented and exploited through ad space, is it any wonder that people internalize anxiety?
“We live in a society of opinion overload,” Townsend said. “Especially with a lot of medical stuff, it raises our anxiety to see this constant barrage of information. Say, for instance, I do an Internet search for Ebola. Well, suddenly the ad space on Facebook and Yahoo and every other website is filled with information about Ebola, and I start to think that everyone is talking about Ebola, when really that ad space is being tailored to me. For someone that already has obsessive tendencies, this then turns into a hand-washing compulsion and it grows.”
Treatment for OCD is multifaceted behavior therapy that often includes both systematic desensitization and flooding. Both therapies involve exposing the patient to anxiety-provoking stimuli slowly while training the brain to respond calmly and in a healthy way.
Systematic desensitization is the preferred treatment for OCD but is recommended only under the direct supervision of a skilled professional.
“Exposing a patient to either of these techniques without increased coping skills can result in relapse and possible harm to the client,” Peterson explains. “Relaxation techniques that can help the patient to cope with the anxiety associated with OCD include imagery, breathing skills and muscle relaxation.”
Townsend recommends seeking professional help when your daily life is being affected by compulsions or anxiety.
“We are the sickest we’ve ever been as a generation from a mental health standpoint. It’s important that we seek help when we feel that we need it. If the thought crosses your mind to come see someone, go.”