By Annabelle Parr
The term OCD has been appropriated to describe neat freaks, those who get a kick out of organizing, and the Mr. Cleans of the world. People casually joke “I’m so OCD!” in reference to their color coded planners or their squeaky clean cars or their Instagram worthy closets. Not only is this use of the term inaccurate, the tongue and cheek expression minimizes the severity and suffering associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
For those who actually meet diagnostic criteria for OCD, the characteristic obsessions and compulsions are far from cute or funny. According to the DSM-5, obsessions are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, urges, or images that create immense anxiety and distress; compulsions are the actions the individual takes to attempt to neutralize, suppress, or ignore the obsessions, and involve behaviors or mental acts which are rigidly applied in response to obsessions. OCD compulsions take up at least an hour of the individual’s day, and create serious impairment in important areas of life, including school, work, and relationships.
Additionally, although most people tend to think of OCD as characterized by fears of germs or the need for things to be orderly, these are only two of many manifestations of the disorder. There are a number of categories into which obsessions and compulsions commonly fall, including checking, contamination, symmetry and ordering, and intrusive thoughts. These categories often overlap with one another and at the core all subtypes involve extreme difficulty tolerating uncertainty.
Though the checking behavior is a compulsion, the compulsion is driven by a fear-based obsession regarding potential harm or damage that could occur if the compulsion is not engaged. Some examples in this category include checking locks, appliances, lights, and taps, checking for signs of illness or pregnancy, checking one’s valuables, or checking for signs of sexual arousal, as well as seeking reassurance. The checking behaviors – like the compulsions in all of the subsequent categories – are engaged multiple times, and often prevent one from maintaining commitments such as arriving to work on time, keeping social engagements, etc.
In this category, the obsessive fear is related to harm as a result of being dirty or coming into contact with germs, and the compulsion typically involves excessive cleaning or avoiding situations which may result in contamination. Some common examples of feared stimuli include public or private toilets, restaurants, shaking hands, chemicals, sex, outside air, and crowds.
Symmetry and Ordering
The obsessive aspect of this category can either be related to the compulsion, where a lack of order causes great discomfort, or can be connected to other unrelated fears or intrusive thoughts such that the compulsion to create order is believed to prevent the feared harm (e.g. contracting a serious illness) from occurring. Items – such as clothes, books, pictures, and food – must be arranged symmetrically and just right.
This particular subtype is sometimes referred to as “Pure O” (for obsession), as it is characterized primarily by obsessions and avoidance, but does not typically have overtly obvious compulsions present. Intrusive thoughts are a particular type of distressing obsession, characterized by involuntary, unwanted, highly distressing and often disturbing thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts can be related to one’s relationship, where for example, one feels the compulsion to constantly seek reassurance of one’s partner’s feelings or faithfulness.
They can be related to sex, involving intense fear of being sexually attracted to children, sexually attracted to family members, or regarding one’s sexual orientation.
Another particularly distressing form involves intrusive thoughts regarding violence, where one fears he will carry out violent acts toward himself, loved ones, or others.
Sexual and violent intrusive thoughts are experienced as especially disturbing, and individuals struggling with these thoughts are often hesitant to disclose them as they may believe that these thoughts are a sign that they are capable of such actions; they may also fear that these thoughts mean that they are a bad person or that they will be viewed as such. Despite the disturbing nature of these thoughts, individuals with OCD are the least likely to act on such thoughts, as they experienced as revolting; rather than indicating a propensity to carry out these actions, much of the individual’s time is devoted to suppressing the thoughts and avoiding and preventing the feared outcomes.
Intrusive thoughts can also come in the form of magical thinking, where the individual believes that thinking about something terrible – such as a natural disaster or death – makes it more likely to occur.
Finally, religious intrusive thoughts (scrupulosity) can take the form of intense fear that one is sinning, one must pray over and over, fear of blasphemous thoughts, etc.
The good news is that effective treatment is available for OCD. The gold-standard of treatment is currently Exposure and Response Prevention, a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy in which the client is – in the context of a warm and supportive therapeutic environment – exposed to the distressing obsessions and prevented from engaging in the subsequent compulsion. Like all forms of exposure therapy, this approach allows for new learning to occur such that the association between obsession and compulsion is slowly broken down. The client typically learns over the course of treatment that catastrophe does not strike despite failure to engage former compulsions. Medication may also be recommended in conjunction with therapy in some cases.
OCD Is No Joke
OCD can severely limit one’s ability to engage effectively and meaningfully in life. The associated distress and anxiety can be overwhelming and painful, thus OCD is not something to joke about or trivialize. However, with effective treatment, individuals can learn how to manage distress in new ways such that they are not prevented from engaging in a rich and vital life.
CSAM IS HERE TO HELP
If you or someone you love might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for anxiety, panic, phobias, stress, PTSD, OCD, or insomnia, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at firstname.lastname@example.org