March 9, 2019
It’s only normal to experience intrusive, random, or otherwise strange thoughts from time-to-time — virtually everyone does. For most people, it’s relatively easy to dismiss such thoughts and move on, allowing the brain’s stream of consciousness to flow in a different direction.
But that’s not the case for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety-related mental illness that traps those who have it in an ongoing cycle of intrusive and obsessive thoughts that can only be soothed by repetitive compulsions, impulses, or urges.
In one analogy, the condition is likened to having a poor email spam filter. For someone with OCD, random and unwanted obsessive thoughts are like junk email that can’t be blocked.
As these “junk messages” keep coming and coming, they eventually exceed the number of normal messages and overwhelm the system, causing the person who’s receiving them to engage in compulsive behaviors in an attempt to ease their distress or suppress the unwanted thoughts.
OCD affects millions of people of all ages and from all walks of life. Learning as much as you can about this equal-opportunity mental disorder is one of the best ways to understand it.
OCD is a chronic mental health disorder with neurobiological origins. It’s characterized by obsessions and compulsions that take up excessive amounts of time each day and cause a significant amount of distress.
Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses that emerge over and over again. Common obsessions include the need for perfect symmetry, cleanliness, concerns about contamination, and aggressive urges.
For the people who experience them, such obsessions are unwanted, don’t make any sense, and feel uncomfortable and uncontrollable. For these reasons, obsessions are also typically accompanied by intense feelings such as fear, disgust, or doubt, and in many cases, a compelling feeling that things must be done in a way that’s “just right.”
Compulsions — which are the behaviors a person performs in order to suppress, neutralize, or counteract their obsessive thoughts and ease the resulting anxiety — may take the form of visible actions or mental behaviors. Common compulsions include checking, counting, washing or cleaning, and arranging.
Because such compulsive behaviors are only able to provide temporary relief, however, they ultimately end up reinforcing the obsessions, giving rise to a progressively worsening cycle of OCD behavior.
OCD affects people of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In the United States, an estimated one in 40 adults and one in 100 children have OCD. Across the globe, OCD is so common that the World Health Organization counts it as one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability among adolescents, young adults, and middle-aged adults.
Because the term OCD is sometimes incorrectly applied to any behavior that’s deemed “obsessive” or “compulsive,” it’s important to know what OCD isn’t in order to better understand what it is.
Being preoccupied with a topic, idea, or even another person isn’t considered obsessive if it doesn’t get in the way of your everyday life and doesn’t make you feel anxious or distressed. Likewise, not all repetitive behaviors can be classified as compulsive. Practicing the guitar for hours on end isn’t compulsive, for example, because you’re engaged in learning a new skill that positively enriches your life.
In the context of OCD, obsessions and compulsions are time-consuming, unwanted, and interfere in important activities that are valued by the person who’s affected. People with OCD know that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, and they would rather stop having such thoughts and engaging in such behaviors than continue them. This knowledge is extremely important, as it’s partly what determines whether someone has OCD — a well-defined psychological disorder — rather than an obsessive personality trait.
Because OCD is a chronic mental health condition that typically worsens over time, early treatment is crucial for preventing a level of disruption that it interferes with virtually every aspect of normal life.
Although there are no laboratory tests that can conclusively identify OCD, experienced mental health professionals can determine the presence and extent of the disorder through diagnostic interviews and other tools that measure the severity of obsessions and compulsions.
While there is no cure for OCD, current treatment protocols can provide much-needed relief. The most effective, evidence-based treatment approach for OCD is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that aims to change a person’s thought and behavioral patterns in order to change the way they feel.
For people with OCD that causes severe anxiety, taking anti-anxiety medications may help reduce compulsive behaviors whenever anxiety-inducing obsessions arise.
Getting the right treatment can help most people with OCD reduce their symptoms enough to regain full control over their daily lives. Here at Advanced Psychiatry Associates, we take a personalized approach designed to help people with OCD achieve and maintain treatment gains and reclaim their lives for good.