As some of us know, obsessive-compulsive disorder can take on many shapes and forms, limited only by the imagination of the person with OCD. In general, OCD likes to attack whatever it is we most value: our families, relationships, morals, accomplishments, etc. In short — our lives.
So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that some people with OCD are obsessed with death. What better way for OCD to attack what is most important to us than telling us our lives are all for naught as we’re just going to die anyway?
It is not unusual for people to think about death. Personally, the thought comes into my mind often. At times it hits me like a ton of bricks that my time here on earth is limited, and this realization brings up various philosophical questions: What’s the meaning of life? Am I living my life the way I should, or want? Will it even matter that I was here? Is there life, or anything, after death? The list goes on.
I don’t have OCD, so I’m usually able to let it all go after a few minutes. I realize the questions I have, for the most part, are unanswerable. I accept the uncertainty and go on with my life. For those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, however, obsessing about death can be torturous.
People with OCD can easily spend hours upon hours a day obsessing over various aspects of death and dying, asking the same existential questions mentioned above, and then some. But they don’t stop there. They want answers to these questions and might analyze and research them — again for hours and hours. They might also seek reassurance, either from themselves, clergy, or anyone who will listen. It’s not hard to see that these obsessions and compulsions can literally take up an entire day and overtake lives. It is not uncommon to experience general anxiety as well as depression when dealing with OCD related to death.
So how is this OCD treated? You guessed it — exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. While we can’t control our thoughts about death, we can learn how to better react to these thoughts. Exposures might include those with OCD deliberately subjecting themselves to the thoughts they fear, typically through the use of imaginal exposures, while response prevention involves not avoiding or trying to escape these fears, but rather embracing the possibility they will occur. No seeking reassurance. No analyzing, researching or questioning these thoughts — just acceptance of them. In short, ERP therapy consists of doing the opposite of what OCD demands. In time, these thoughts that previously had caused so much distress will not only lose their power, but also their hold on the person with OCD.
Time and time again, we see how OCD tries to steal what is most important to us. Ironically, those caught in the vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions related to death and dying are robbed of living their lives to the fullest. Thankfully, there is good treatment to help those with OCD learn to live in the present moment and work toward the lives they deserve.