We all have thoughts or certain habits that we sometimes seem to frequently repeat. However some people have thoughts or compulsions that seem to obstinately take over their lives – this is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD was originally classified as an anxiety disorder due to the intense anxiety linked to its symptoms. But the American Psychiatric Association decided it needed its own classification in 2013.
One reason is that it is a mental health condition that has seen a significant rise in the number of sufferers. Presently, OCD affects more than two million Americans.
OCD is defined as having a pattern of unwanted fears and thoughts – known as obsessions – that lead someone to perform repetitive behaviors – compulsions. These compulsions and obsessions interfere with daily life and cause a great amount of suffering.
Many people with OCD have both compulsions and obsessions. Despite attempts to ignore, control or be rid of such urges and intrusive thoughts, sufferers feel powerless over them.
Trying to stop them or at least ignore them only normally leads to anxiety and distress. So to ease these overwhelming negative feelings, someone with OCD feels increasingly compelled to do the compulsions and pay attention to the obsessions – and they end up in a vicious cycle of OCD.
Compulsions include things like counting items, repeatedly checking to see if a window or door is locked, cleaning and excessive hand washing. Even though most people with OCD know their behaviors don’t make any real sense, they still feel compelled to do them.
When there are obsessive thoughts it can cause extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain. This is due to the fact that when certain disconcerting thoughts keep coming into their mind they are not certain they will not actually act on them – and this can cause self-esteem problems or even lead the person to loathe themselves.
What are OCD symptoms?
People suffering from OCD have obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors that:
Use up at least one hour every day.
Disturb daily living, such as social life, work, studies or parenting.
Are not pleasurable. People do them because they feel they cannot stop.
Feel totally out of control.
OCD presents in many different forms, but most cases will involve some sort of:
Ordering and symmetry.
This is the compulsive need to do things in a specific order or to have items lined up in a certain way. For example, perhaps all tins of food in a cupboard or bathroom items have to have their front label showing. Or it could be that all books must be in a certain order, or clothes hanging in a wardrobe in a very particular way.
If one is left out of place by another family member or a visitor it can lead the person with OCD to feel angry or even physically sick. Their heartbeat can quicken and they can develop a cold sweat. They may swiftly get up to put the item in the order they feel that it has to be, and this can be viewed as bizarre behavior by onlookers.
This includes repeatedly checking that such as an alarm is set; an oven is turned off; that all light switches are not left on; that taps are not running; that doors and windows are locked; that an email or other message has been sent, or repeatedly checking personal items have not been stolen or lost from pockets and bags.
This is when someone has extreme fear and anxiety about germs. They can have an obsessive, almost frenzied at times, compulsion to clean – even if everyone else thinks somewhere looks clean.
Their fear of germs is much more intense than most people’s (that is a natural part of our survival instincts). It might be that they don’t want to sit down on a chair that someone else might have sat on at some point or they always feel an overwhelming need to keep windows open even if it’s cold. They may also avoid, for instance, using public toilets or shaking hands with anybody.
As well as the fear of germs, there can also be terrific anxiety about other health risks such as potentially fatal impairments that could be encountered. Contamination fear can be so extreme it means some people avoid going to places where there could be any other people.
This could be constantly thinking about and being aware of various body sensations such as blinking or breathing. There might be a constantly perturbing suspicion about a partner being unfaithful, with no actual evidence for it. For some people with OCD, there are thoughts that seem relentless that can be violent or disturbing, including sexual thoughts with intrusive images.
Some mental health conditions are similar to OCD. These involve obsessions with:
Collecting things (hoarding disorder).
Picking at skin (excoriation).
Pulling out and/or eating hair (trichotillomania).
How somebody looks (body dysmorphic disorder).
Abnormal body odors (olfactory reference syndrome).
Physical illness (hypochondriasis).
Mental health experts have no definitive reason as to why some people get this disorder. But it has been observed that many people diagnosed with OCD have experienced trauma, including physical or sexual abuse, that was frequently during childhood. It could be that they are attempting to create order on the outside as they battle their internal chaos.
People struggling with OCD are often reluctant to seek the help they need because they feel embarrassed or ashamed. But there are proven methods to successfully treat OCD.
You’ve probably heard the term “OCD” bandied about as some type of catch-all that describes any mild neuroses.
Unfortunately, throwing the term around often diminishes the severity of actual cases of OCD. The 1 in 40 Americans living with obsessive-compulsive disorder can definitely attest to that fact.
While everyone has their own ways of doing things, behaviors and quirks like disliking untidiness or sticking to a strict routine often have nothing to do with OCD. These are just common characteristics shared by many people. Alone, they don’t really imply anything about their mental health.
Moreover, when pressed to change routines or behaviors, most people don’t struggle to make adjustments. Sure, the dishes in the sink might be irritating. But it won’t send the average person into a state of emotional chaos.
Whereas those suffering from OCD can’t “let things be.”
Instead, a person with OCD will often get anxious when things aren’t done a specific way. Plus, they might feel compelled – uncontrollably so – to repeat behaviors and tasks until completed to their liking.
Diving Deeper into OCD
As a chronic anxiety disorder, OCD consists of behavioral responses when someone experiences uncontrollable, unreasonable, or recurring thoughts.
As the name suggests, there are two components to this mental illness: obsessions and compulsions.
Repeated urges, mental images, or thoughts that cause anxiety are classified as obsessions. Compulsions are the triggered, repetitive behaviors that result from obsessive thoughts.
Here is how compulsions often play out in people suffering from OCD:
People with OCD will repetitively wash their hands, check something, move objects, stare, seek symmetry, or pray. In other words, they act compulsively.
Typing a search into Google, asking Siri, or checking with loved ones to seek reassurance is another way OCD can play out.
Walking around objects or forgoing social interactions are both signs that a person with OCD is avoiding triggers.
OCD might also entail repeating words, mental checking, thought suppression, replacing unpleasant thoughts with pleasant ones, etc. These are called mental compulsions.
Intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and unsureness are all adverse effects of OCD. Such symptoms damage one’s overall quality of life because of how unpredictable and all-consuming they can be.
Those dealing with OCD might find it hard to leave their home because the behaviors can draw unwanted attention.
Fortunately, for those who do suffer from OCD, there is light at the end of the tunnel. First and foremost, getting a firm handle on your symptoms requires guidance and treatment from a trained professional. But you can help yourself further by following the self-help strategies discussed below:
Knowledge is Power: Learn About OCD
In business, if you’re competing with a fierce industry rival, you’re likely to learn every last detail about them. The knowledge you gain about them will guide your strategy in overcoming any threat they pose to your company.
Chronic illness is very much the same. You can’t productively manage any ongoing condition without putting in the research and understanding the challenges you’re facing.
The fact is, OCD is sticking around for the long haul, given its chronic nature. There’s no “cure.” There’s coping. And coping starts only when you gain an expert level of knowledge.
Get Comfortable with Stress Reduction
Stress is one of the most common OCD triggers.
As such, learning ways to offset your stress should be a top priority. There is a caveat here: ensure these coping mechanisms actually positively impact OCD.
For instance, drinking or smoking to manage stress will make you feel worse and likely trigger negative behaviors.
Another coping mechanism that makes things worse is using avoidance strategies. Doing so will increase your stress levels surrounding whatever trigger you’re avoiding. These stressors must be dealt with head-on (preferably with the guidance of a trained professional) while using other, healthier methods.
The following behaviors will help build a sturdy coping foundation to relieve stress:
Get a whole night’s sleep EVERY NIGHT.
Learn about and stick to a stress-fighting diet.
Learn to meditate
Stick with your prescribed treatment plan
Keep in mind, if you can’t offset your stress levels, you’re unlikely to successfully manage your OCD. One hand feeds the other.
Get a Grip on Your Anxiety
Anxiety – similar to stress – is a trademark agitator when it comes to OCD. It causes excessive worry, potentially revolving around the themes of your obsessions or your illness’s outcomes. These worries can also extend to work, paying bills, and other everyday activities.
These types of worries can overwhelm you. When they do, it’s the number-one enemy to your relaxation, causing further stress and triggering your OCD.
Therefore, you’ll need to learn strategies to manage your anxiety. Many professionals suggest figuring out how likely you are to face a worst-case scenario, then deciding how to handle the situation if everything happens to go wrong.
Improve Your Relaxation Skills
The idea of “learning” to relax seems odd at first. Shouldn’t relaxation come naturally?
It turns out that relaxation is hard work, especially for people with OCD.
Think about how difficult it is to find a sense of calm when your OCD is triggered by stressors and anxiety. Leveling out and easing your tension in these situations requires learned skills and techniques.
Without developing the necessary skill set, you’ll remain at the whims of your obsessions and compulsions.
Relaxation techniques include:
Progressive muscle relaxation
Part of relaxation is prioritizing your own wellbeing and treating yourself with compassion. So, don’t be afraid to book a massage or spa appointment.
Commit to an Active Lifestyle
According to one study, OCD symptoms generally decreased when participants added moderate-intensity aerobics (e.g., running) to their treatment regime for 12 weeks.
Further research (involving mice running on a wheel) showed that exercising created connections in brain neurons. These findings suggest that exercise causes changes in the human brain, resulting from growth factors that might offset OCD symptoms.
Another advantage of exercise is the resulting endorphins, which help with managing stress.
Lastly, staying active generally increases one’s self-esteem, which is a massive contributor to good mental health.
The above outcome often results from feeling better physically and mentally, building self-confidence, and reducing anxiety/stress levels. With those OCD symptoms managed, the condition becomes far easier to cope with.
Embrace the Practice of Mindfulness
The core philosophy of mindfulness is being aware of sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. And you must practice this awareness in an entirely non-judgmental way.
Mindfulness’s origins are in the eastern spiritual traditions (e.g., Buddhism), and it’s a holistic approach to coping with OCD.
Being mindful of your thoughts that distress or disturb you, can help you confront them. It works the same way as someone afraid of dogs spending time with a dog to overcome their fear.
Through mindfulness techniques, you might see that your thoughts are just words or images and aren’t scary. Meaning you won’t be as invested in your thoughts, which helps reduce thought-action fusion–a process that worsens OCD symptoms.
Don’t Be Afraid of Alternative Remedies (As Long as They’re Safe)
No matter your condition, you should always be skeptical about what you’re putting into your body. It’s a matter of your own well-being, and you deserve to feel safe before trying any medicine–pharmaceutical or otherwise.
Still, you should consider alternative medicines because these treatments might positively impact your OCD.
For instance, St. John’s Wort is a popular herbal remedy used for mental health symptoms. The science is split on whether such treatments are effective, but it’s always worth a shot if there’s a potential for improvement.
With St. John’s Wort (and other herbal remedies), you must speak with your doctor before trying it out. These compounds can cause a bad reaction if you’re on other medications.
Be Compassionate to Yourself
A chronic mental illness like OCD isn’t overcome at the snap of a finger. Yes, wanting to get better is the first step. And following the healthiest steps will give you the best chance to overcome symptoms.
However, you could do everything “right” and still have lapses where you respond poorly to triggers.
In these instances, don’t get frustrated with yourself.
You should instead show yourself forgiveness and compassion. Remember, you’re only human, and you’re dealing with a taxing mental illness that requires a lot of energy to manage.
Remind yourself during tough times that taking steps to cope healthily already shows tremendous courage.
Note that showing compassion to yourself helps you understand your OCD better because you’ll equip yourself to face your anxieties and stressors. You’ll then look at your pain without judging yourself poorly or criticizing your own actions.
Take it One Day at a Time
Overcoming OCD takes a lot of work. It’s not something that fixes itself with prescription medication or surgery. You must adapt your lifestyle to deal with symptoms and triggers constructively.
In other words, successfully coping with OCD is a lifelong journey. Understand that each day brings with it the chance to make small changes.
Following these tips is a crucial first step. But they’ll only be lastingly effective if you receive the necessary professional counseling to guide you through your OCD journey.
Our dedicated team of professionals is experienced in treating a range of mental health conditions.
For more information about how we can help you or your loved one, contact us today.