The obsessive-compulsive disorder also referred to as OCD, is an anxiety disorder. People suffering from OCD experience obsessions (repeated highly distressing thoughts, urges, mental images and worries). They also feel obliged to carry on specific routine behaviours. These behaviours are also known as compulsions. Avoidance is also often a feature of OCD. One may find themselves avoiding situations, activities or objects that increase their anxiety.

There are five main types of OCD. Yet, they can also be overlapping:

  • Checking
  • Fear of Physical or Mental Contamination
  • Proccupation with Symmetry and ordering
  • Persistent Ruminations or Intrusive Thoughts
  • Hoarding

OCD can affect men, women and children, and can develop at any age. Yet, it typically develops during early adulthood.

Is OCD a mental illness?

Yes, OCD is an anxiety disorder. This means that the person diagnosed with OCD can become very anxious in response to their obsessions (intrusive thoughts or images) and engages in repetitive behaviours to ease their anxiety, such as cleaning their hands, checking if the door is locked or repeating a phrase in their head.

What causes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

There is no single definite cause of OCD. However, research shows that the following may play a role in someone developing OCD:

  • family history/genes – you’re more likely to develop OCD if a family member has it
  • differences in the brain – brains of some people with OCD can be very active in some areas; for some low levels of a chemical called serotonin may be a problem
  • life events – OCD may be more common in people who have experienced bullying, abuse or neglect, and it sometimes starts after a significant life event, such as childbirth or a bereavement
  • early life experiences – some people may develop OCD if very early on they learnt unhelpful thoughts and behaviours in response to neutral situations
  • personality – neat, meticulous, methodical people with high personal standards may be more likely to develop OCD, as may those who are generally quite anxious or have an extreme sense of responsibility for themselves and others

However, not everyone experiences OCD in the same way and often it is the mix of many different factors that cause it.

What are the Symptoms of OCD?

Several different symptoms are characteristic of OCD, and you don’t have to experience all of them to be diagnosed with the disorder. They typically involve both emotional and physical symptoms and tend to include both obsessions (thoughts/images) and compulsions (behaviours). Here are some of the most common ones:

  • fear of contamination by germs or dirt or fear of contaminating others
  • fear of losing control and harming yourself or others
  • intrusive sexually explicit or violent thoughts and images
  • focus on religious or moral ideas
  • thinking that everything must line up “just right”
  • excessive attention to something considered lucky or unlucky
  • excessive double-checking of things, such as locks, appliances, and switches
  • repeatedly checking in on loved ones to make sure they’re safe
  • counting, tapping, repeating certain words, or doing other senseless things to reduce anxiety
  • spending a lot of time cleaning
  • continuous ordering or arranging things
  • praying excessively or engaging in rituals triggered by religious fear
  • accumulating “junk” such as old newspapers or empty food containers

Although you may not experience all the symptoms mentioned above, the thoughts and behaviours you are experiencing are likely to have a specific pattern. In this pattern, your thoughts often cause you distress, which you’re trying to reduce by behaving in a certain way. This way of behaving is also called a ritual. This way of behaving is likely to make you feel a bit better momentarily. But, this feeling tends to be short-lasting and leads to thoughts/images becoming more intense over time.

What is the best treatment for OCD?

Research has shown that talking treatments and medication can help treat OCD. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP) are the two types of talking therapy suggested for OCD:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that focuses on how your thoughts and beliefs impact on the way you feel and behave.
  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP) works by helping you confront your obsessions and resist the urge to act on your compulsions. During sessions, you are supported to gradually and deliberately put yourself in a stressful, anxiety-provoking situation associated with your OCD. Then, you learn how to tolerate the feelings instead of carrying out your compulsions. This is so that you get used to the uncomfortable feelings and learn that the uncomfortable feeling eventually goes away once you manage to tolerate it.

Medication can often be prescribed to reduce the symptoms of OCD, in addition to psychotherapy. Antidepressants are the medication of choice for many GPs, and they have also been recommended by the National Institute of Health and Social Care Excellence (NICE) along with side psychological therapy. Sometimes your GP may prescribe tranquillisers or beta-blockers to help with the symptoms of anxiety.

Apart from talking therapy and medication, there are other things you can try to help you cope with OCD. These include spending time with your family or friends, peer support, mindfulness, relaxation, getting enough sleep, having a balanced diet and exercise.

Can I recover from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

OCD can be hard to treat fully. Treatment should start with an appropriate assessment. Then, medication and effective psychotherapy can help reduce significantly the distress caused by the disorder. Psychotherapy can help one learn to cope with it. Currently, a combination of talking therapy and medication could be most helpful. Learning about the condition, what it means for you and how to notice warning signs and symptoms, is an essential part of having a good quality of life while living with OCD.

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