OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is an anxiety disorder that impacts millions of American's lives. Even as late as the 1990's, it was not well understood. Only decades ago, it was thought to be a rare psychiatric illness that did not affect many people. Increasing awareness is bringing to light the fact that millions of individuals in the United States alone suffer from this anxiety disorder.
You might hear somebody say "I'm so OCD" in reference to their strict cleaning habits. This person may not actually suffer from OCD; they may be invoking the name of the anxiety disorder inappropriately. Hollywood often portrays OCD as a loveably eccentric quirk. These pop culture perceptions are helping to distort the true nature of this disorder, covering up a grim reality that affects many OCD sufferers face every day. The reality is that OCD is an anxiety order that can have a crippling effect, severely limiting the ability to enjoy life and function smoothly in society.
Hand washing. Constantly checking and re-checking. Asking for reassurance for things you just know are completely crazy. Driving around the block 5 times to make sure you didn't "accidently" hit somebody. Having unwanted thoughts of impurity, profanity, religious blasphemy. Feeling a sense of guilt for those thoughts and completing mental rituals to "cleanse" them. These are just a few of the many complaints that could be affecting an OCD sufferer. The OCD sufferer is not crazy; quite the opposite. The horrible reality is that the OCD sufferer knows their thoughts and feelings seem irrational and wrong, and they feel "crazy" for feeling that way. They are usually well aware of how odd their own thoughts, avoidances, escapes, rituals, and reassurance seeking actually are.
OCD effects every person differently, and to a varying degree. For example, not every OCD victim washes their hands 7 times in a row because they feel contaminated. Not every OCD sufferer repeats the same phrase to their banker 5 times because they feel if they do not, something bad will happen to somebody they love.
A light OCD sufferer may only have minor annoying compulsions, such as those lauded in popular TV shows and movies like Monk or As Good As It Gets. In more severe cases it can be a completely crippling impediment to living a normal life. Think Howard Hughes; perhaps the most famous OCD sufferer in history. When he died in the 1970s, little was known about OCD, and it wasn't understood as an anxiety disorder for which treatment exists. As the richest man in the world, Hughes could afford to indulge all of his compulsions in lavish ways; not understanding that he simply had an anxiety disorder that could be treated.
Did you spend your childhood turning the lights on and off in a certain pattern only? Or have you ever played songs on your music player over and over again just to pause on an exact chord every time? If this sounds like you, then you may be suffering, from one degree to another, from OCD.
Is there a cure for OCD? Will drugs fix it? If you or somebody you love is suffering from this disorder, you're going to want to know more. Every individual's symptoms are different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling OCD, but the good news is there are ways to snuff it out so it does not control your life.
This article will briefly explain what obsessive-compulsive disorder is and how to best manage it in the easiest ways.
What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
It is totally normal to occasionally worry if you have locked the main door of your apartment before leaving, or go double-check if you have really unplugged the iron after using it. However, when you suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, these ‘obsessive’ thoughts followed by compulsive actions become so common that they start interfering with your life.
So what is OCD?
OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder and refers to a type of anxiety disorder that features unwanted, uncontrollable thoughts that are later translated to repetitive behaviors and actions (rituals) that you are compelled to take. As a sufferer of OCD, you are well aware of how baseless and illogical some of your obsessions and compulsions can be, yet you feel you are unable to break free from them. (1,2)
To understand obsessive-compulsive disorder, consider the needle of a gramophone that gets stuck on an old record. Just like that, OCD can make your mind get stuck on a particular urge. For instance, you may find yourself washing hands every 10 minutes because you think they are full of germs. Or, you may run to the kitchen at least 20 times just to ensure that the stove is off so that your house doesn’t burn down. You know what you are doing does not make any logical sense, and looks crazy to any average observer. Many sufferers of OCD are excellent at hiding their rituals, while some are not capable. Rituals may also be mental, occurring inside one's head. While these actions may seem silly to the OCD sufferer, they provide a feeling of temporary relief from the obsessive thoughts. Read on, because this kind of negative reinforcement only snowballs into more OCD. The rituals do not actually help the person in the long run, and participating in them actually only fuels the anxiety one suffers.
If these rituals can be broken with CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), the OCD sufferer may be able to cut off the fuel supply to their OCD, extinguishing the mental fire that is going on inside their head.
What Are The Two Major Symptoms Of OCD?
These refer to involuntary impulses, images, or thoughts that keep occurring again and again in your brain. Even if you don’t want these ideas in your head, you cannot do anything to stop them. These obsessions are often distracting and extremely disturbing.
Compulsions refer to certain rituals and behaviors that are a response to your obsessive thoughts and are done to make them go away. For instance, if you obsess over keeping yourself clean and staying away from germs, you may keep washing your hands over and over again as an act of compulsion. These compulsions may provide a certain degree of relief but it is never long-lasting. In fact, the compulsions hit back even more strongly, eventually leading to a cycle of long lasting anxiety that plagues you day-in and day-out.
Other commonplace OCD symptoms include but are not limited to the following:
- Fear of getting contaminated by germs
- Having aggressive thoughts about losing control or even harming others
- An urge to perform everything in a certain order or with symmetry
- Unwanted, disturbing, thoughts that constantly barge in your mind out of nowhere
These OCD symptoms are highly variable among different individuals. Hence, the best way is to consult a doctor or use an OCD screening tool for diagnosis.
How Do I Treat Myself For OCD?
Instead of relying on the typical OCD treatment or OCD medications including anti-anxiety pills, or finding harmful alternatives like alcohol, there are simple (yet very mentally challanging) things you can do to combat your OCD and extinguish the fire. Mentioned below are the top 5 of these tips to help you get started.
#1 - Know your triggers
The first thing to do as a part of natural OCD treatment is to understand what triggers your symptoms. What is it that causes you to obsess over certain things and ultimately compel you to repeat certain tasks over and over again? Keep recording all the triggers every day along with the kinds of obsessions they provoke. Also, note the extent of the anxiety or fear you experience in every situation and rate it and record the mental strategies or compulsions that you rely on to ease this anxiety.
For instance, if you fear contamination by germs, the fear intensity of touching the railing of the staircase at a public library might be 3 out of 5 and may require you to wash hands for 5 minutes. On the other hand, getting in contact with the washroom floor may generate anxiety of 5 out of 5 and may require a 15-minute long hand washing.
Keeping a list of your triggers can help in the anticipation of your urges. Once you are able to anticipate your compulsive urges even before they arise, it gets easier to manage them.
#2 - Try resisting OCD compulsions
It may seem logical to avoid getting into situations that trigger your obsessive thoughts. However, the truth is; the more you try to avoid them; the scarier they will feel. The anxiety builds and mounts. Alternatively, try exposing yourself to your OCD triggers as this can help you resist the urge to perform the compulsive rituals. This is known as exposure and response prevention (ERP) and is a proven therapy for OCD.
As a part of ERP, you need to constantly expose yourself to the very source of your obsession. When you are exposed, you have to try your hardest not to perform a ritual. You have to stop yourself from performing the compulsive behavior that follows. For example, if you have a fear of contamination, your ERP may include touching the doorknob of a public restroom and then not washing your hands despite the anxiety that follows. Allow yourself to sit as calmly as possible and the anxiety will start going away on its own. The amount of time does vary, and this can be challenging.
Eventually, if you do this challenging task, you’ll no long feel the compulsions to perform a ritual.
#3 - Challenge your obsessive thoughts
Troubles and worries are a part of everyone’s life. However, in OCD, the brain tends to get stuck on a certain thought that provokes anxiety. This thought keeps playing over and over in your head, no matter how much you try to repress it.
In the previous tips, we have talked about how you can resist your compulsions to ease the symptoms of OCD. Another way to get the job done is by overcoming the obsessive thoughts by tolerating them through ERP. As a part of this therapy, you must remember to keep reminding yourself that your thoughts are merely thoughts, no matter how disturbing, violent, unwanted, or intrusive they might be. You have to stop yourself from investing too much of your time in these thoughts or the anxiety will feed itself and your OCD will get worse.
In order to help yourself gain control over your anxious thoughts, the following strategies may help:
- Keep a pencil and a notebook on you. Whenever you start obsessing, start writing down all your compulsions and thoughts in it. You can also use your smartphone for this purpose.
- Whenever you feel like having an obsessive thought, challenge it. Ask yourself if the thought is actually true. Is it based on a fact or against it? Do you feel as if there is a more positive way of looking at the situation you are dealing with?
- Make a tape of all your obsessions and thoughts due to OCD. You can either use a tape recorder or your smartphone for this purpose. Once you have recorded all your thoughts, play the tape to yourself every day for at least 45 minutes. Listening to your obsessions every day will make you immune to them and you may no longer feel distressed about them.
#4 - Look around for support
OCD is much stronger and vicious if you are dealing with it alone. Therefore, an important tip to manage it is by building a strong support system for yourself. Connect yourself with as many people as you can and you will start feeling less vulnerable. Simply talking to a person who understands you and sharing all your urges and worries with them can make your condition look a lot less threatening. For this purpose, you can try one of the following tips:
- Connect with family and friends
For some people, obsessions and compulsions are so strong that they destroy their social life completely. As a result of this social isolation, your OCD symptoms are even more aggravated. Therefore, it is extremely important to get yourself out of this social impairment and get connected with family and friends. Talk to them face to face and share your issues.
- Join an OCD support group
Even if you don’t have any family or friends or are not able to connect with them due to some issues, you are still not alone. There are many support groups that help people struggling with OCD to connect and provide a platform to them to voice out their concerns, fears, and issues. Find an OCD support group near you and join it now.
#5 - Manage stress
While stress is not a trigger for OCD, it can definitely make the problem worse. (5) Therefore, you must try your best to manage stress as much as you can. For this purpose, connecting with family and friends as well as exercising are good solutions. Additionally, you can also self-soothe and control your symptoms by using one or more of your senses. For example, you may listen to a calming piece of music, take a hot shower, cuddle with your pet, or go through old photos that make you smile. Relaxing techniques like yoga and mindful meditation can also be of help.
What Happens If OCD Is Left Untreated?
Untreated episodes of obsessive-compulsive disorder can worsen to the point that physical symptoms start developing. Such people are unable to function properly and end up having suicidal thoughts. OCD can also lead to other mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. The suffering may also cause a person to become addicted to alcohol or drugs just to ease their symptoms. If you are suffering from OCD do not hesitate to reach out and get help from a medical professional, especially if suffering from suicidal ideations or isolation.
In A Nutshell
OCD is debilitating; it is cruel, and it can make your life a lot more miserable. However, with a few simple (yet mentally challenging) steps through ERP, it can definitely get easier.
In extreme cases, you should get in touch with a doctor for getting appropriate OCD treatment. Your health and well-being is worth it. Reach out and seek help if you need it.