Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a common mental health condition characterised by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. Some people develop the condition in childhood but it usually develops during early adulthood.
An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind causing anxiety or even disgust. A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that is done to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought. Examples include someone with an obsessive fear of germs will repeatedly wash their hands to the point that their hands may be red and raw which ironically increases the chance of germs and infection as the defensive layer of skin is broken. Other people obsessively worry that they haven’t locked their house or turned the cooker off which leads to repeated checking. In extreme cases, this can take hours and makes leaving the house an ordeal. Another theme can be a fear that the sufferer may harm someone, so they avoid taking any form of responsibility for child care for example. One sufferer explained their experience with OCD:
“It’s not about being tidy, it’s about having no control over your negative thoughts, it’s about being afraid that not doing things a certain way will cause harm.”
Purely obsessional OCD is a type of OCD in which the sufferer engages in hidden compulsions, so instead of combatting their intrusive thoughts with visible rituals such as handwashing, they perform repetitive mental rituals to minimise stress. This is sometimes labelled ‘Pure O’ but this term is misleading as the sufferer still has compulsions although they are, mental not psychical.
In the internet age compulsive checking is often done via a search engine i.e. Google in order to seek reassurance, but ultimately this reassurance seeking creates more anxiety and a vicious cycle is set up. So, for example, the sufferer may research the causes of their headaches and conclude they have a brain tumour.
People with OCD are often reluctant to seek help because they feel ashamed or embarrassed; this is a shame because there are effective evidence-based treatments available. These include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which can help the sufferer face their fears and understand their compulsions and gradually allow them to resist their obsessive urges. Medication can also be helpful in particular a class of anti-depressants called SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which work by increasing the level of the chemical serotonin in the brain making sufferers feel less anxious. The first port of call for anyone feeling that they may be suffering from OCD is to talk to their GP who can then refer for more specialist treatment if necessary.
– Dr Tim Rank, Consultant Psychatrist, Brighton & Hove Clinic
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