“I thought OCD was just about constantly washing your hands or having to keep your desk tidy all the time.” Daniel sat in the chair across from me in my clinic, talking quietly, looking highly uncomfortable, eyes glancing nervously around the room. “I never knew it could ruin my life like this.”
Lots of people experience intrusive thoughts or worries, or find themselves preoccupied with tidiness and wanting things to be “just so”. While it’s common to hear this kind of behavior described as “acting a bit OCD”, genuine Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is far more severe than simply placing a high value on orderliness, and can have a far more damaging effect on your life.
Recognizing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Daniel initially came to me thinking he was losing his mind. For the past six months he had been experiencing recurring homosexual thoughts. As a straight man with a long term girlfriend he was terrified of anyone finding out about these uncontrollable thoughts that would pop into his head dozens of times each day.
These intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts or obsessions are the first part of OCD. This can be anything from fear of contamination to recurring worries about your safety to superstitions about order and routine. The second half of the condition is the thoughts and actions, or compulsions that the person does in order to remove or “scratch the itch” of the obsession. For Daniel this meant going through a mental list of times he had been attracted to women and not men in order to prove to himself that he was not gay. This is also where the ritualized hand washing, door checking and desk-ordering can come into play — the person with OCD feels that they have to perform certain actions to silence the constant stream of obsessive thoughts.
Those who have struggled with OCD know that it’s no joke — the constant thoughts can be extremely distressing and the resulting compulsive actions can take up a huge amount of time and mental effort. For Daniel the constant dread of having his thoughts exposed and the worry that there was something deeply wrong with him meant that by the time he came to me he also needed treatment for depression.
For me the frustrating thing is that despite the severe suffering it can cause, OCD is such an easy condition to treat. If a few basic principles are understood there’s no reason you can’t learn to manage and reduce your OCD symptoms and rid yourself of a constant source of stress and worry. The most effective treatments for OCD are Cognitive Behavior Therapy. More specifically, the most effective treatments are a type of CBT called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).
These immediately actionable tips form the basis of all good OCD treatment.
- Accept That It’s Just an Illness
OCD isn’t a sign of something deeply wrong with you — it has nothing to do with repressed sexual urges or dark impulses or an “unclean spirit” or any other self-critical belief you may have about yourself because of it.
OCD is a medical condition, just like the flu or a broken leg. That’s all. You can examine its causes in terms of chemical imbalances in the brain or previous experiences if you like but the point is it’s just an illness. Thinking it’s anything more is incorrect, and will only increase the anxiety you feel about it.