When you hear someone refer to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), what comes to mind? Unhelpfully, the stereotype and social media memes often focus in on extreme neatness or a phobia of germs, without acknowledging the many ways OCD can present itself in a person’s life and the distressing and debilitating impact it can have. OCD is so much more than being a ‘clean freak’ and can present in often unrecognised ways.
The good news is that OCD is very treatable with the help of a psychologist trained in treatment for OCD. Recognise that reassurance and just talking through the problems can often make OCD worse rather than better so it is essential to seek out help from someone who is appropriately trained.
The fine line between being a “clean freak” and being diagnosed with OCD lies in distinguishing when certain mental and physical behaviours are signs of a genuine struggle. OCD isn’t solely about the actions themselves; it’s the thoughts and beliefs underlying them that fuel the disorder, for example, worry and rumination on repeat.
In this article, Dr Jodie will unpack the nuances of OCD, helping you to figure out if your behaviours, or those of someone you know, might be more than just a quirky habit.
“I can’t control my thoughts – it’s as if my mind is whirring out of control, and I just have to check or do things to stop it, but the things I do just make me feel worse rather than better.”
So, what actually is OCD?
OCD is a mental health condition characterised by the presence of obsessions and compulsions:
- Obsessions are intrusive, distressing, and persistent thoughts, images, or urges that cause significant anxiety.
- Compulsions are repetitive mental or physical behaviours a person feels the urge to do, often in response to an obsession.
According to Beyond Blue, around three per cent of Australians experience OCD in their lifetime. While OCD can interfere with family and social relationships, it’s important to remember it’s a treatable mental health problem.
What are common OCD thoughts and behaviours?
So, what can OCD look like in a person’s behaviours? Here are some of the common obsessions and compulsions someone with OCD may experience, by no means exhaustive, providing a glimpse into what it’s like to live with OCD.
OCD obsessions include:
- Regret about having done something or not having done something that runs on repeat.
- Fear of contamination or dirt, leading to excessive handwashing.
- Intrusive, distressing thoughts about harming oneself or others.
- Fear of making a mistake, resulting in repeatedly checking tasks or objects.
- Excessive concern with order, symmetry, and precise arrangement of objects.
- Preoccupation with germs, diseases, or health concerns.
- Irrational fear of losing or throwing away important items.
OCD compulsions include:
- Repeated rumination about past events or worry about future events.
- Repeatedly washing hands, often to the point of skin damage.
- Counting, tapping, or repeating specific words or phrases.
- Checking and rechecking locks, appliances, or other objects.
- Performing rituals so something bad won’t happen, for example, touching objects in a specific order.
- Arranging and rearranging objects until they feel “just right”.
- Seeking constant reassurance from others to alleviate obsessive thoughts.
- Mental compulsions, such as repeating prayers or affirmations, to neutralise intrusive obsessions.
Do we know what causes OCD?
The short answer is, not exactly. The actual cause of OCD remains a subject of ongoing research and exploration. The most common theories include:
- Biology: OCD could stem from alterations in the natural chemistry and functioning of the brain.
- Genetics: A family history of OCD can increase the likelihood of its occurrence in a person, though specific genes have not yet been pinpointed.
- Learning: Environmental factors such as life experiences and upbringing or witnessing OCD behaviours in family members.
- Trauma: An uncertain or chaotic environment often early in life leading to an extreme discomfort with uncertainty and need for control.
Where to go for support with OCD
Living with OCD can be an overwhelming and confusing experience. Symptoms may worsen over time. If you or someone you know is living with OCD symptoms, early intervention is your best friend. Get started by making an appointment with your GP.
Should you receive a referral from your GP for psychological services, at The Anxiety Clinic, our dedicated team of psychologists is here to offer you support with OCD, and if relevant, OCD treatment options. Book now at The Anxiety Clinic.