Have you ever had recurring thoughts or feelings that don’t seem to go away, or feel the need to do certain things a particular way? You may be dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is a mental health disorder that usually appears in childhood or adolescence (though it can start up until age 40), and is slightly more common in females.
People with OCD experience both obsessions, which are recurrent thoughts, images, or ideas that cause distress, and compulsions, which are repetitive behaviors or mental acts done to relieve anxiety. This typically takes up more than an hour each day, and is likely to interfere with work, school, or social life.
What are the signs and symptoms of OCD?
OCD is a common mental illness that affects how a person interacts with the world and how they carry out daily activities. There are two main parts to OCD: Obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions typically involve thoughts, images, or impulses that a person can’t get out of their head and are usually related to topics such as contamination and germs, fear of uncertainty, needing order or symmetry in life, and aggressive or terrible thoughts about harming oneself or others.
Compulsions are behaviors that someone with OCD will feel compelled to do in order to decrease their anxiety from the obsessions. These can include hand-washing, avoiding certain situations, checking things, cleaning or arranging items in a certain way, repeating certain activities multiple times, excessive counting, and praying or mantras.
And while obsessions and compulsions that you can observe are the most commonly cited symptoms of OCD, there is also a critical element of OCD that often goes unnoticed. A person with OCD will often be observed as excessive, frequently appearing to be “overreacting” to situations or triggers. These may be the same types of issues or situations that cause someone without OCD to be irritated, anxious or frustrated, but for a person with OCD, they often have trouble “moving on” from the situation and tend to relive the triggering event over and over in their minds until they can find a way to look at it from every angle.
This is one of the reasons that understanding the difference between OCD and other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression is critical. With OCD, finding the right kind of therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy and similar treatments) is critical to proper treatment.
Traditional therapy, where the person with OCD repeatedly talks through their thoughts, is less effective than the development of coping mechanisms. This is because someone with OCD is not struggling to confront the thoughts provoking their anxieties; rather, they’re struggling to get them out of their head.
Finding a way to track symptoms and situations in real-time is also critical to effective diagnosis. Family history of the disorder, stressful life events, and having other related mental health issues can also point to OCD as a possibility.
What causes OCD?
No one knows exactly what causes OCD, but researchers think that a few things might be involved. For starters, there might be changes in the brain’s response to certain chemical messengers, like serotonin and dopamine. Plus problems with how different parts of the brain talk to each other might also contribute to OCD.
There are also certain genes that have been connected to OCD, like genes that provide instructions for proteins that react to or transport serotonin and other genes involved with communication in the brain. Even environmental factors, like worrying events and complications during pregnancy, are being looked at as potential causes.
Researchers don’t know for certain how likely it is to inherit OCD from family members, but people with a first degree relative (like a parent) who has OCD may be more likely than other people to get it. All in all, we’re still trying to figure out what causes this disorder – but it’s likely a combination of genetics, chemistry, and environment.
How is OCD diagnosed?
Finding a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in OCD is a very helpful start as these individuals are generally able to diagnose most mental health issues, but are also able to spot the differences between OCD and generalized anxiety and depression.
OCD is diagnosed if someone can’t control their thoughts or behaviors even if they know they are excessive. They must have thought and behavior cycles that take up more than one hour of their day, cause them distress, or interrupt important activities. They also won’t find pleasure in doing their routines, but will find relief from the anxiety.
How is OCD treated?
Treating OCD can be challenging, but with the right help and support it is possible. Treatments usually involve a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and taking medications. CBT is a type of therapy that helps people identify and modify thoughts and behaviors associated with OCD.
A specific type of CBT called Exposure and Response Prevention (EX/RP) involves exposing the person to their fears or obsessions and teaching them healthy ways to cope with the anxiety they cause. Medications used to treat OCD are usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), although other types of psychiatric medicines may be prescribed if SSRIs aren’t effective.
Additionally, there are lifestyle changes that can be helpful in reducing symptoms of OCD, like getting regular exercise, practicing relaxation techniques, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and spending time with supportive friends and family.
While supporting someone with OCD may try your patience, with the right support, individuals with OCD can go on to be massively successful in life. The ability to hyperfocus when needed can be a huge asset, and their communication skills and deep empathy can be a great value in relationships. But they’ll need the right support structure, therapy and possibly medication to convert that incredible ability to focus in a productive and impactful way.
Find out how Kith + Kin can help.