OCD comes in many guises; however, when we hear the term OCD, we think of things like excessive handwashing or an exceptionally organised person. I always believed that the acronym stood for Obsessive Cleaning Disorder, presumably because of my association with Monica Geller from Friends and her constant need for cleanliness and order in her home.

In the media, characters with OCD are often portrayed as quirky and comical, when, the truth is, the condition can be debilitating and frightening for the sufferer.

So, then what is OCD?

Firstly, OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder and is an anxiety-related disorder.

And, secondly, it involves two components:

1. Obsessional thoughts, which consist of any unwanted thoughts, images, impulses, worries, doubts, and fears that are intrusive and so pervasive that they feel impossible to ignore.

We all have intrusive thoughts from time to time. Random thoughts that pop up out of nowhere and don’t follow our intended train of thought. Oftentimes, these thoughts come and go without a second thought, with no emotional attachment to the thought itself.

But for those suffering from OCD, these unwanted thoughts can make them feel anxious and fearful, and disgusted with themselves for thinking them.

These can include, but are not limited to, thoughts/worries/fears:

  • Of violence and aggression, e.g., stabbing a loved one or jumping out in front of a train.
  • That harm will come to self or loved ones, or their property will be damaged or broken into.
  • About their own sexuality or of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards children.
  • About contamination of self, loved ones, food or environment from dirt, germs, viruses etc.

Which then leads to:

2. Compulsive behaviours, which are an attempt to fight the unwanted thoughts and provide relief from their anxiety. However, usually, this relief is only temporary.

On occasion, we all experience compulsions, counting the number of chocolate buttons in a packet as you eat them, or avoiding cracks in the pavement while walking. But, in OCD, rather than being enjoyable, a compulsion is a behaviour the sufferer feels compelled to repeatedly perform, either to prevent imagined harm happening to themselves or their loved ones, or until they feel better.

Compulsions can include:

  • Avoiding touching objects, people or places that could trigger the intrusive thoughts.
  • Checking for signs of contamination, that doors and windows are locked, or appliances are switched off, etc.
  • Repeating words or phrases, praying, or counting. These actions are intended to replace the intrusive thoughts or images, or give the appearance that it prevents bad things from happening.
  • Rituals, which include doing something a set number of times or arranging objects in a specific way.

Oftentimes, the sufferer knows they are being irrational. They know their compulsions don’t make sense. But they feel trapped in a vicious cycle. It’s paradoxical, but the more energy you give to fighting the unwanted thoughts and fears, the more they return and the harder to remove they then become. The more you behave in a certain way to eliminate them, the more you reinforce those thoughts.

How is OCD treated?

The main approaches to treating OCD are:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a psychological therapy aimed at teaching an individual the skills needed to challenge and change their negative thought and behavioural patterns to improve their mental state and quality of life.

The skills learned during sessions of CBT can usually be effective quite quickly and are designed to be taken into everyday life, long after the sessions have ended. 

  • Medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which alter brain chemicals to help restore their balance.

SSRIs can take between two to four weeks to start feeling any benefits. Treatment typically lasts for at least six months but can be longer or indefinitely, depending upon the individual’s response.

These treatments can be provided separately or in conjunction with each other as needed. 

Individuals with more severe symptoms may require hospitalisation.

What can you do if you are suffering from OCD?

If you are not yet ready to take that daunting step to seek professional help, there are some things you can try to help yourself in the meantime. And when you’re ready, these suggestions can help support you in your recovery alongside professional help.

Firstly, know that you are not alone.

According to the OCD UK charity, OCD “affects 1.2% of the population”. Simply knowing you are not alone in your struggles can be a source of relief. Out there somewhere there are people who understand your struggles.

Secondly, remember, you are not your thoughts.

You have thoughts. But they are not you. They may be disturbing and distressing at times. But that does not make you disturbed. They are just thoughts, nothing more. And just because you have them, doesn’t mean you will act on them. OCD UK also says, “people living with OCD are the least likely people to actually act on such thoughts.”

Thirdly, practise self-care.

A caveat, there is no one size fits all approach to self-care. Find something you enjoy, but if it turns into a compulsion, even if it worked for you initially, take a step back and try something else.

Self-care includes things like:

  • Getting adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep, which will help boost mood and energy levels, and reduce stress.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness, meditation, and focusing on the breath. There are some excellent YouTube videos that can guide you through them.
  • Journaling can help identify unhelpful thoughts and behaviours. Sometimes simply dumping thoughts on paper can help clear the mind and put things into perspective.

And finally, find a support network.

Even if you are not yet ready to talk about your symptoms, connecting with and having people you trust will help you feel better. Start off with socialising a little more and with practice, you may find you are ready to finally seek further help. 

Final thoughts.

In summary, obsessive-compulsive disorder is no laughing matter despite the comedy characters we see on TV. Intrusive thoughts can be overwhelming and frightening.

While it can be intimidating to receive a mental health diagnosis, it can also be liberating to finally put a name to your struggles, to better understand your struggles, so you can better navigate and, one day, overcome them.

You are not your thoughts. You are not your behaviours. You are not your diagnosis.

You are you. Uniquely, wonderfully, and beautifully you. You just happen to have a mental health diagnosis and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Ever.