Have you ever observed someone so afraid of germs that they must wash their hands excessively? Seen someone step over cracks because they think something bad will happen to them? Watch someone repeatedly check to see if they left the lights on? These are all examples of people suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a highly intrusive problem that affects over two million people in the United States alone. Let’s learn more about OCD and what can be done to treat this invasive disorder.
What Is OCD?
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is usually characterized by obsessive thoughts that become paired with compulsive behavior. The thoughts tend to be so pervasive that a person uses the compulsive behavior to help reduce the frequency of the thoughts. For example, someone with OCD may believe that if the items on their desk are not arranged in a certain way that something bad will happen to them. As a result, they continuously check to see that no one has moved the items out of the preferred order. This behavior takes up significant chunks of time and may cause them to shirk their responsibilities. It should be noted that it is possible to have obsessions and compulsions without each other, although it is much rarer.
Signs and Symptoms of OCD
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM-V), obsessions are defined by the following criteria: 1) recurrent and persistent thoughts that are seen as unwanted and cause marked anxiety or distress and 2) the person must attempt to ignore the thoughts or manage them through some other thought or action. Common obsessions may include a fear of germs, unwanted thoughts involving sex or religion, and the need for a specific organization of items.
Compulsions are marked by 1) repeated behaviors or mental acts that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession and 2) these acts are done in an effort to reduce anxiety or prevent some unwanted event. These behaviors are not considered rational and are clearly excessive. Common compulsions involve checking, cleaning, hoarding, and arranging.
It is not uncommon for most people to have an obsessive thought or exhibit compulsive behavior once in a while. To have clinical OCD, however, these obsessions and compulsives need to be disruptive and excessive, often interfering with responsibilities and causing significant distress.
What Can Be Done About OCD?
The following are the two most common treatment options for OCD:
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)
ERP is usually recommended as an effective front-line treatment for OCD. A variation of cognitive-behavioral therapy, it involves exposing an individual to an anxiety-inducing stimulus and then preventing them from instituting a compulsive behavior. For example, someone with a germ obsession may be asked to touch (or imagine touching) a dirty doorknob and then be prevented from washing their hands. The purpose is to reduce the power of the obsession by repeatedly showing the individual it is not valid.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most frequently used medication to treat OCD. They increase the amount of serotonin in the brain; a lack of serotonin has been implicated in numerous psychological issues, including depression and anxiety. Approximately 50 percent of people will show significant improvement in OCD symptoms after using an SSRI.
OCD can severely disrupt your life if left untreated. It is a chronic condition and may worsen over time if left unchecked. If you believe you or a loved one is suffering from OCD, please seek assistance. A licensed clinician can help you achieve the mental health you deserve.