What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder consisting of recurring, unwanted, obsessive thoughts and can manifest itself in repetitive and compulsive behaviours. The illness can vary in its severity and impact and can sometimes result in very high levels of anxiety and distress. The condition can take up a considerable amount of time and attention for the sufferer and their family and/or friends. 1.9-3% of young people suffer from OCD independent from social class, ethnicity or background.
When is OCD a problem and potentially meeting a diagnostic threshold?
Anxious thoughts are common and they can helpfully influence our behaviour. For example, “did I leave the front door open?”, is a thought that may lead someone to go back and check to prevent the house from being burgled. It is also normal to have certain routines (in this case checking the door is locked after leaving the house). However, if these thoughts and behaviours become obsessive, they can lead someone to engage in unhelpful behaviours (e.g. excessively checking the door). OCD can interfere with daily life (e.g. frequently being late for work or school).
OCD is maintained when a person carries out compulsions (e.g. locking the door 10 times after leaving the house) to reduce their anxiety and obsessive thoughts. The condition reinforces worrying thoughts. Anxieties are unlikely to disappear when people cannot go without performing their compulsions. If you feel that your OCD is causing significant distress or interference in your daily life, it might be time to seek out some help or support to try to break these unhelpful maintenance cycles.
What are the main symptoms of OCD?
Some of the most common warning signs that someone is experiencing OCD include (but are not limited to):
- Particular and repetitive behaviours (e.g. the tidying of a room in a certain way or the recurrent lining up of certain items)
- Repetitive hand washing
- Prolonged showering/bathing
- Excessive worry about handwriting and/or neatness of handwriting
- Excessive worry about possible harm coming to loved ones
- Repeated checking of things (e.g. door locks, windows, taps, gas hobs)
- Repeated counting and distress when interrupted
- Excessive worry about illness or disease
- Hoarding of items and/or refusal to discard seemingly useless items
OCD is a very treatable condition. There are many things you can do to recover from what can be a debilitating experience. As with general anxiety, there are two strands of treatment; psychological and pharmacological (drugs). Generally, the first line of treatment is time-limited psychological therapy and often features a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
CBT helps you to better understand your OCD. You will learn to set goals trying to break the negative cycles you are likely to be stuck in. One way of doing this is using exposure and response prevention, whereby you are encouraged to face your fears (i.e. obsessions) without giving in to your compulsions or associated repetitive behaviours. Normally, this process is implemented in very small and achievable steps. Such an experience will provide you with some evidence that your fears won’t come true. In addition, the approach will teach you how to cope with the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety with the support of your therapist.
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