A Brief Overview
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) affects many people in varying ways. This disorder is diagnosed based on the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive, uncomfortable thoughts that are difficult to remove from focus. Compulsions are behaviors used to try to relieve these thoughts. For instance, one may experience obsessive thoughts about forgetting to lock the door, and the following compulsive behavior is to frequently check that door lock.
Unfortunately, OCD is often misunderstood, causing individuals who do not have OCD to believe that they have it, while those with less understood symptoms of OCD may not be aware of their diagnosis. It is important to understand the many different ways that OCD can manifest and how challenging it can be to manage these symptoms. The following paragraphs provide important information about the impact of OCD.
Following Routines Does Not Necessarily Indicate OCD
It’s important to remember that routines are not the same as OCD. Most people have routines, but when routines become out of control or unmanageable, OCD is a possible explanation. However, not every routine, intrusive thought, or repetitive behavior indicates this diagnosis. Even having obsessive or compulsive tendencies do not necessarily indicate a diagnosis of OCD. The key word “disorder” indicates that the obsessive-compulsive symptoms interfere with or impair one’s ability to function. Therefore, it is important to be cautious about diagnosing yourself or someone else without recognizing the severity that must exist.
OCD Does Not Make You Abnormal
At first, you may be filled with confusion or discomfort about a diagnosis of OCD. You might worry that there is something wrong about who you are, and you may even experience shame if your thoughts or behaviors seem to be different from those of other people. It is critical to understand that you are not abnormal, and there is no shame in being diagnosed with OCD. In fact, discovering this diagnosis may help you to directly target elements of your thoughts and behaviors that have caused you distress for a long time. This is a common disorder; just as there is nothing to be ashamed of with a physical diagnosis, there is no shame in learning that you may need additional support for this mental health diagnosis.
OCD Does Not Equal Germaphobia
Individuals with OCD do not necessarily focus on hand washing, germs, or neatness in the way it is typically portrayed in media. Although these types of OCD certainly exist, there are many other ways in which OCD can manifest. OCD can cause intrusive thoughts about causing harm, the fear that things need to be checked and rechecked, intrusive sexual thoughts, an obsession with keeping items arranged a certain way, or undesirable religious thoughts. These intrusive thoughts can lead to compulsive behaviors to try to manage the thoughts. It is important to be aware of the different subtypes of this disorder because it may help you to explain symptoms you otherwise would not have attributed to OCD. Having an awareness of the cause of these symptoms can guide you toward the path of freedom from them.
You are Not Your Thoughts
We all experience a strange or uncomfortable thought from time to time, but OCD forces these thoughts to stick around longer than may be necessary. OCD also causes a false sense of responsibility for these thoughts. Someone with OCD might think, for instance, he is a bad person for having a “bad” thought. Individuals with OCD often place too much responsibility on themselves for the thoughts that run through their heads. This focus on the thought gives it even more power, which can make it even more stressful. It is important to remember that we are not our thoughts. Thoughts are fleeting and come without our desire or plans. Arguing with a thought or punishing yourself for having it is unnecessary and can increase the discomfort experienced.
OCD May Always be a Part of You
OCD, like other mental health disorders, may never be fully gone. There are many ways to calm the symptoms and behaviors associated with OCD. Through treatment, individuals with OCD may no longer have noticeable or bothersome symptoms. However, these symptoms may reoccur or increase during times of high stress. Therefore, it is important to be aware of signs that may indicate a need for support.
How to Better Manage OCD
When left untreated, OCD can wreak havoc on your daily life. It is important to learn to challenge obsessive thoughts and to reduce or avoid indulging in compulsive behaviors. The desire to act on compulsions will be strong, so modifying this behavior is not an easy task. However, consistent practice will help you to manage your symptoms over time. The following paragraphs offer some strategies to support you on this challenging journey.
Challenge the Evidence
With OCD, it is likely that your thoughts are causing you to overestimate the possible damage of a situation or misplace your responsibility. You may begin to believe you are causing events that you are unable to control. One important strategy that can help manage these symptoms is challenging your thoughts with evidence. Consider writing down your thoughts in one column, and use additional columns to provide evidence for the thought and evidence against the thought.
For instance, you might fear that you did not turn off the iron, which will cause your house to burn down. In this example, it could be helpful to write down this thought followed by the evidence, such as: I turn the iron off every morning. Every day this month, I have feared I did not turn off the iron, but there is not one example of a time I did not turn it off. If I did not turn off the iron, it would not likely burn down my house because the smoke alarm would go off. If the smoke alarm goes off, I would receive a call from my security system, etc.
Using this technique can help reduce your anxiety about these obsessive thoughts.
Stay Consistent (Even When it’s Uncomfortable)
An important way to interrupt the cycle of OCD involves consistently making the choice to avoid compulsions that feel anxiety-relieving. Compulsive behaviors develop as a way to try to minimize the risk of negative consequences. In other words, an obsessive thought about something bad happening might make you believe you need to engage in a behavior to prevent that thing from happening. Although this may reduce the feeling of anxiety for the moment, this anxiety reduction will actually reinforce the behavior, increasing the likelihood you’ll do this again in the future. The obsession leads to the compulsion, which temporarily reduces the anxiety, and the process continues and spirals.
At first, it will likely feel uncomfortable and unnatural to avoid these behaviors. This is understandable because you have become accustomed to these compulsions. However, this discomfort will decrease over time as you consistently practice. Remember that making the choice to avoid each compulsive behavior is a step toward releasing the grip of OCD on your life.
Evidence has suggested that OCD may involve a neurobiological component. Genetic factors, as well as environmental stressors, can cause the symptoms of OCD. Therefore, medication may be a useful part of your treatment. If living with OCD is truly a struggle, medication is definitely something to consider. Medication is not the only form of treatment for OCD. Some individuals may find it beneficial to use a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral techniques. Some may not use medication at all. Even when using medication to treat OCD, ideally it is often only used temporarily while learning how to manage behaviors and thoughts more effectively.
Take Your Time
Retraining your brain, reducing your obsessive thinking, and modifying your behaviors to fight OCD are not simple tasks. It can take time to change the ways you have gotten used to in managing these thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, it is important to give yourself that time without the pressure to do everything overnight. It is likely that you will take some steps forward and then take a few steps backward. Try not to be discouraged by this- it is a normal part of a difficult process. Focus instead on the progress you are making.
OCD is composed of several subtypes, so specific obsessions and compulsions typically vary from person to person. It can be helpful to learn about the different types of OCD to determine if your uncomfortable symptoms may be attributed to this condition. Then you can learn things you can do to try to have an impact on this. OCD can be challenging to overcome, but there are many ways to treat and better manage this disorder.
Suggestions for further information:
- Hyman, B. M., & Pedrick, C. (2011). The OCD workbook: your guide to breaking free from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- Winston, S., & Seif, M. N. (2017). Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts: a CBT-based guide to getting over frightening, obsessive, or disturbing thoughts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.