OCD: An Introduction

It’s normal to feel that we need to double check things sometimes in order to reassure ourselves that we didn’t overlook something that could be very important – like if we turned the oven off or locked the front door. However, for many people the habit of repeatedly checking becomes a treacherous, unconscious burden.

For people with obsessive compulsive disorder, checking and re-checking things can consume many hours of their day.  They are driven by intense fears of extremely improbable scenarios. Repeatedly checking fogs their memory because instead of a memorable, one-time occurrence, the person is confronted with a series of similar events that blur together – which is when doubt sneaks in. It’s as if the brain’s filter for sorting out what’s dangerous from what’s not dangerous isn’t working – normal uncertainty, doubt and worry become out of control.

The most common type of OCD is cleaning, where people feel like deep cleaning their homes incessantly and they tend to live in very sterile environments and hate dirt and mess.  The symptoms of OCD are usually easy to spot, especially if you live with someone who displays them.  I once had an OCD sufferer do my office cleaning in Cambridge. Her symptoms were obvious which led us to talking about her condition. I was so intrigued after our conversation that I decided to look into it some more.

What’s the Cause?

Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what causes OCD, although recent research has brought us a better understanding as experts now believe that it is related to the levels of serotonin in the brain. When the flow of serotonin is blocked, the brains overreacts and misunderstands information. Instead of the brain filtering out these useless thoughts, the mind dwells on them — and the person experiences unrealistic fear and doubt.

Doctors used to believe that OCD was rare and untreatable, but now as many as 3 in 100 people are known to have OCD. Although there’s no cure yet, most people can live free of its symptoms for the entirety of their life time, with proper treatment.

How is it Diagnosed?

OCD is an illness.  Like asthma, diabetes, or any other illness, OCD can be treated so people can get relief from its symptoms.  However, you can’t have a blood test to tell you if you have OCD, like you can with most other illnesses.  Instead, a psychiatric doctor has to question you about your obsessions and compulsions and from this assessments they are able to diagnose your illness.

Is There Help?

People who suffer with full-blown OCD can often be helped with drugs or through cognitive and behavioural therapy.  They learn to tolerate anxiety, change fearful thinking and to gradually stop the habit of checking – in most cases.

Therapy

The thought of going to a therapy session can be scary and overwhelming. Many people are so embarrassed by their obsessions and compulsions that they don’t even tell their friends and family about them, never mind a stranger!

Beating OCD is not fast or easy – it’s a long, hard slog! It takes practice, patience and hard work. OCD sufferers usually go to therapy once or twice a week for a while and then less often as they begin to improve. The doctor will sometimes prescribe medication to help with symptoms. As for feeling any better, that can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. If you’re suffering, or know someone who is, then you don’t have to go through it alone – many people with OCD find that support groups help them feel less lonely and realise that many people are in the same boat.

Having OCD doesn’t mean that you’re crazy and recognition is the first step on the road to recovery.