“OCD” is often used in conversation to describe people who are considered germaphobic or perfectionistic, which contributes to the illness being widely misunderstood. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, can be a very disabling illness that may or may not have anything to do with contamination fears or perfectionism.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive, anxiety-provoking thoughts (obsessions), as well as repetitive attempts to reduce anxiety (compulsions), or both. Obsessions can involve thoughts or images of violent, distressing or otherwise taboo acts. Compulsive behaviors can involve repeated behaviors such as checking things like locks or stoves, or counting repeatedly.
While many people have similar concerns and fears, people with OCD suffer considerable disruption in their daily lives as a result of the excessive time they spend ritualizing and/or obsessing. Many people may worry about illness or safety, but people with OCD are unable to control their obsessions or refrain from performing rituals or compulsions. If you imagine the last time you felt panic or overwhelming fear in the face of an emergency or near disaster, that same level of fear and anxiety is often encountered by patients with OCD if they’re unable to perform rituals or compulsive behaviors.
Brain-imaging research has helped to uncover the brain-related dysfunction that manifests as OCD. Thus, like Alzheimer’s disease and depression, OCD is a disease of the brain. OCD can run in families; rituals can be learned by children from their parents.
Fortunately, OCD is treatable. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that has had marked success in alleviating the distress and disability associated with OCD. Additionally, some antidepressant medications have proven to lessen OCD symptoms.
People who suspect they may have OCD are encouraged to seek out psychotherapists and psychiatrists experienced and trained in the treatment of OCD.
Felicia Gould, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. Visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.