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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a debilitating and much misunderstood condition. It causes serious distress for sufferers, and is agonising for family members and loved ones to witness.
If you’re struggling with OCD, you may find it hard to believe that things will improve. But you can get better from OCD. The condition is manageable, and sufferers can go on to live a full, happy, fear-free life. Finding a counsellor for OCD will help enormously with this. If you want to find out more about OCD, or about how to get support for OCD, we’ll cover some of the basics in this article.
WHAT IS OCD?
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a severe anxiety disorder, characterised by intrusive and extremely distressing thoughts. Sufferers are plagued by uncontrollable thoughts and images of awful things. These thoughts can take many forms, but they often involve the death of loved ones, or natural disasters, or other terrible, fearful events.
The intensity of these thoughts or images is overwhelming. They override all other thoughts, and are very hard to control without therapy and training. These intrusive thoughts (or 'obsessions' are the ‘Obsessive’ part of the acronym.
Needless to say, such horrific thoughts cause a great deal of anxiety for sufferers of OCD. Sufferers experiencing ‘Obsessions’ can become so worried that they experience the physical effects of fear, such as nausea, sweating, agitation, rapid breathing, and elevated heart rate. In order to tackle the extreme distress they are experiencing, OCD sufferers start to perform small, self-soothing rituals. In some cases, these rituals act like a subconscious ‘deal’ with the obsessions, in which the sufferer hopes to avert the disaster they’re worried about by undertaking certain tasks, or ‘compulsions’.
OCD is very hard for non-sufferers to understand. When under extreme and prolonged stress, the human brain can develop coping mechanisms which seem very strange to those who have not experienced such distress. If you’re struggling to understand how OCD ‘works’, try thinking of the condition in terms of superstition. Superstitious people may bid "Good morning" to magpies in order to avert bad luck, or cross themselves to ward off the devil. The obsessions and compulsions of OCD operate in a similar manner.
OCD sufferers are aware that their intrusive thoughts are irrational. People with OCD are not delusional. They have a good grip on reality. However, OCD triggers a deep and ancient part of the brain, which is strong enough to make the intrusive thoughts terrifying despite the moderating influence of rationality. In the same way that someone might say "Good morning!" to a magpie ‘Just in case’ of bad luck (even though they don’t believe in that kind of thing on a rational level), someone with OCD performs compulsions ‘just in case’. However, the compulsions end up reinforcing the obsessions, and the pattern of thought and behaviour is driven deeper into the sufferer's mind.
IT'S NOT ABOUT 'NEATNESS'
People with OCD are often afraid to reveal their suffering. This is not only because doing so reveals their deepest fears. It’s also because OCD suffers from something of an image problem.
You’ve probably heard someone say ‘I’m a bit OCD about that kind of thing!’ when something is a little untidy. The perception that OCD is all about a finicky need for neatness and cleanliness is not only completely wrong, it also trivialises the condition.
The ‘obsessions’ of OCD typically take advantage of the sufferer’s deepest and most horrific fears. For example, it is common for sufferers to experience intrusive thoughts about the death, injury, or loss of a loved one. These thoughts cut far, far deeper than mere niggles about hygiene. The misguided correlation between OCD and obsessive tidiness may have arisen because OCD compulsions sometimes involve completing unpleasant, annoying ritualistic chores. However, compulsions have an infinite range, from mentally repeating prayers or number sequences to running until the point of physical collapse.
The form a person with OCD’s compulsions takes depends on the extent of their own creativity. Almost the only common theme with compulsions is that the sufferer does not enjoy completing them. From the sufferer's perspective, there is an element of sacrifice – they are doing something they do not like in order to prevent something horrible from happening. They gain no satisfaction from performing compulsions – only temporary relief from worry. Someone who likes tidiness will feel satisfied by a tidy room. This is not the case for someone with OCD, because the ultimate motivation is not to complete the compulsive task – it is to stop the bad thing (the obsession) from happening.
Compulsions are often a compassionate act, carried out to save loved ones from a horrible, imagined fate. People with OCD care deeply – perhaps too deeply! To trivialise this crippling disorder by implying that sufferers are merely pernickety is harmful to people with OCD. It misrepresents and invalidates their suffering.
WHAT CAUSES OCD?
Nobody knows exactly what causes OCD. There is evidence that people with OCD have a neurobiological imbalance, meaning that their brains function in a particular and unusual manner. Some studies have found that people with OCD are deficient in the neurotransmitter serotonin – which is associated with feelings of general wellbeing and contentment - but have unusually high levels of the ‘love’ hormone Oxytocin.
There is also evidence that OCD and related disorders have a strong genetic influence. However, environmental and lifestyle factors can also contribute to the disorder. If you have a genetic disposition towards OCD, and then something in your life or environment ‘triggers’ it, you may be more likely to develop the disorder than others would be under the same circumstances. However, nothing about the development of this disorder is certain. It is a complex condition, which probably develops as the result of a combination of factors, including environment, genetics, and biology.
GETTING THERAPY FOR OCD
It is important to get help for OCD. It is common for people with OCD to hide their illness. They battle with their intrusive thoughts behind a public persona, and perform their compulsions in private. However, this illness will only get worse if you don’t seek help and explain the issue – in confidence – to an experienced and accredited therapist.
An accredited counsellor can help you to break the repetitive cycle of obsessions and compulsions. They will help you to explain your thought processes – which in itself can be a relief – and can offer therapies which will help you to bring this nasty disorder to heel. OCD need not be a life sentence. There are many, many people with OCD out there who are rarely, if ever, bothered by intrusive thoughts. And, if a thought does crop up, they know how to put it down thanks to OCD therapy. Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, and Justin Timberlake – to name but a few – have all successfully mastered their OCD. With a little help, you can too.