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What is OCD, and a glimpse into what it is like to experience OCD

by | Feb 9, 2021 | OCD | 0 comments

Have you ever heard someone say “That’s so OCD” when someone is cleaning or arranging things carefully? Although OCD has become a common term used to refer to being neat or precise in a quirky way, this can unfortunately minimize the fact that OCD is a real mental illness that can be debilitating to live with. OCD is often misunderstood, so here are some facts to understand what OCD actually is, and then an exercise that might help you step into the shoes of someone with OCD.

What is OCD?

There are two significant components of OCD, obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are thoughts, mental images, or urges that occur over and over again in a person’s mind in a way that feels out of a person’s control. The word ‘obsession’ comes from the Latin word ‘obsidere’ which means ‘to besiege’. In other words, obsessions in OCD ‘besiege’ a person – no matter how hard one might try to get rid of a particular obsessive thought, it often returns to their mind, leaving the person feeling distressed. Some common obsessions include extreme concern about getting sick, worrying about being responsible for something terrible happening e.g. a fire, fear about acting on an impulse to harm oneself or others, concern about offending God, and fear of losing information you might need in the future.

Compulsions are actions performed to reduce the distress caused by an obsessive thought. Compulsions can be either physical actions or mental actions. Common examples of physical compulsions include checking electrical appliances, checking that no harm has been done to others, asking someone for reassurance, or excessive washing. Common examples of mental compulsions include repeating a certain phrase in your mind, excessively repeating coping statements, or excessively running through memories in your mind to check for a feared event. While compulsions can lead to relief in the short-term, they end up reinforcing the idea that the obsessive thought is ‘important’, which further perpetuates the cycle of OCD.

A glimpse into what it is actually like to experience OCD

For a person without OCD it can be hard to understand what the experience of obsessions and compulsions is actually like. One way to demonstrate the link between obsessions and compulsions is to write down the name of a loved one on a piece of paper, and then write down a statement that something terrible will happen to them. Logically we know that writing down a certain thought does not make it more likely to happen. However, many people will hesitate before writing down a sentence involving a tragic accident happening to their mother or partner. They may even notice getting quite anxious simply thinking the thought, “What if I will actually cause something bad to happen to my partner?”. To feel better, they may even send them a text just checking in, or feel an urge to rip up the piece of paper or throw it in the bin immediately.

This is similar to the experience of OCD – the obsession is the ‘sticky’ thought that keeps happening over and over in your head “What if I actually caused something bad to happen to my partner?”, leading to a very real feeling of distress that occurs even if we know the thought is irrational. The action performed to reduce the distress e.g. sending a text to check in is the compulsion.

What is the treatment for OCD?

Although OCD can be a debilitating illness, the good news is that there are evidence-based treatments for OCD. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is currently considered the gold standard treatment for OCD. In addition, recent research shows that mindfulness-based approaches can further enhance the efficacy of Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy. If you or a loved one are struggling with OCD, there is help available so do not hesitate to reach out for support.

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