The term OCD has become one that is frequently used interchangeably with a meticulous preference for cleanliness and order, but in reality the condition is much more than this.

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder that can severely impact quality of life. It is a common mental health condition that can affect anyone at any age; however, generally it develops in early adulthood.

We recently got in touch with the team at OCD Action, a UK-based charity that offers support for those affected by the condition, to discuss it in more detail.

Why do we need to learn more about OCD?

In recent months mental health conditions have gained significant media coverage, in part due to high profile celebrities opening up about their own experiences or contributing to awareness campaigns; and this is a welcome development.

It is, of course, vitally important to raise awareness around mental health problems, including OCD. Education is key when it comes to greater acceptance and understanding of the various types of health conditions people face on a daily basis.

As we’ll discuss, raising awareness is also crucial in helping to dispel commonly held myths about these conditions. Stereotyping of health conditions can be damaging and potentially prevent people from seeking appropriate support. And OCD is a condition which is particularly subject to such stereotypes.

OCD Action told us: ‘There are many misconceptions about OCD. Commonly people will use OCD as an adjective to describe people who like to clean, or who line up objects in their home, but the reality for someone living with OCD could not be more different.’

So, what does OCD actually mean?  

‘OCD is characterised by obsessions and compulsions:

  • an obsession is an unwanted, intrusive thought, image or urge which causes anxiety,
  • and a compulsion is a mental or physical ritual that is carried out in order to relive this anxiety.

This cycle of obsessions and compulsions can become vicious and never ending, thus causing people living with the condition to often become really debilitated.’

It is possible to have OCD that stems from a need for cleanliness but the driving force behind this is much more than preferring clean and order, over mess and disorganisation.

OCD Action told us: ‘Obsessively worrying about becoming contaminated may well be a symptom for someone affected by OCD (the intrusive thought may be, for example, “if I touch this then I will get ill and make someone else ill and they may die”), and in order to quell this worry, they may wash or clean for hours, but this is just one manifestation of the condition, and it is definitely not the case for everyone with OCD.’

People who prefer items in their kitchen to be lined up in a certain way may feel a level of satisfaction once this is achieved. This is not the same for people living with OCD.

OCD Action explained: ‘It’s also important to note that those who carry out these behaviours most certainly do not enjoy them, rather they carry out the compulsion to get rid of extreme anxiety caused by an obsessive thought. For many people living with OCD, being neat and tidy most likely won’t bother them any more than someone without the condition.’

‘Other common obsession include: fears that you may cause harm to yourself or others, sexual intrusive thoughts, or blasphemous intrusive thoughts - to name a few.’

What causes OCD?

It can be difficult to pinpoint the root cause of a mental health condition and this is no different for OCD. There may be a number of different factors that contribute to it.

‘The cause of OCD is currently unknown.’ OCD Action explained. ‘Research suggests for some there may be a genetic vulnerability to developing OCD. The tendency to develop OCD may run in families; as well as there often being other family members with OCD. Psychological factors such as susceptibility to stress or exposure to an emotionally traumatic experience are also likely to be in evidence.’

You may be more likely to develop OCD if your brain works differently; for example if there is high activity in certain areas or there are lower levels of certain chemicals.  

An OCD diagnosis may be tough to come to terms with but there are treatments that can help.

OCD Action told us: ‘The good news is that, for the majority, OCD can be effectively controlled and treated.’

Those seeking help for OCD symptoms can speak to their GP or directly refer themselves to a local psychological therapy service.

How can you recognise OCD symptoms?

There might be certain aspects of your life where you prefer things to be done in a particular way. In most cases these preferences will not prevent you from going about your daily life in the way that you wish. When unwanted thoughts start to lead to compulsions that alter your daily life, then you should probably seek medical help.

OCD Action told us: ‘Everyone can have intrusive thoughts and certain obsessions, and everyone can have habits or certain rituals that they like to do. The problem comes when these thoughts and behaviours start to have an impact on your life.’

‘For example, you may be a person who goes back to check your door is locked before you go to work.’

‘However, if it would cause you lots of anxiety to not go back and check, or if you are late for work because you continuously have to check, thereby impacting on your daily routine, then it may be a symptom of OCD. We would always suggest that anyone who is concerned goes and speaks to their GP.’

The symptoms of OCD can leave people feeling ashamed or embarrassed and therefore reluctant to seek help. It is important to remember that medical professionals are trained to treat all types of health problems.

OCD treatment

Treatment for OCD can be effectively used to significantly reduce the extent to which the obsessions and compulsions impact daily life.

OCD Action explained: ‘The recommended treatments for OCD are:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which should include Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy,
  • and medication.’

So how does CBT work?

The charity told us: ‘CBT for OCD works to change the way a person reacts to the thoughts. It gradually reduces the safety behaviours that follow the obsessions, in order to build up a tolerance to the anxiety. CBT is really successful if delivered well.’

Raising awareness for OCD

Living with OCD can severely damage quality of life. It is important that people are made aware of the condition, so that they might be able to spot symptoms in themselves and others, as well as knowing that treatment is available.

‘OCD Action, along with many other organisations and individuals, are working hard to raise awareness of OCD and change people’s perceptions of the condition.

This includes:

  • people sharing their stories with the media about living with OCD,
  • giving talks in schools about the condition and how people can seek help

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    and helping to inform and shape documentaries.

 

There are also fantastic campaigns like OCD Week of Action and OCD Week, which are supported by people all over the world. During these campaigns, hundreds of people get involved with raising awareness in lots of different ways.’

If you want to find out more about the condition visit the OCD Action website where you can take their screening test ‘Do I have OCD?’.