An estimated 2.3% of adults are afflicted with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. For many, the symptoms begin in childhood or adolescence. This anxiety disorder is a neurological malfunction that creates unrelenting, intrusive thoughts and extreme anguish for those affected. Obsessions range from unbearable worries about contamination to believing they have run over someone while driving. These fears can be alleviated only one way—by acting out compulsions, which become repetitive acts of checking and rechecking to ensure the fear is unfounded.
Although OCD was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1987, many people still live with its destruction unaware there’s help or even a name for their bizarre fears and behaviors. Add to that, “Families often don’t know that they have a sick child,” says Judith L. Rapoport, M.D., in The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing. Children may keep their obsessions and compulsions a secret in order to avoid appearing crazy.
The devastation of OCD isn’t seen in just the adult or child with the disorder. OCD has a negative impact on the whole family. Families often destruct from the stress caused by the disorder. It’s not unusual for the OCD sufferer to rely on family members to help alleviate their fears. The sufferer may insist that a child, parent or spouse check electrical outlets or may badger loved ones with constant questions for reassurance.
In some homes where fear of contamination is the obsession, family members are banned from certain rooms or areas. This is an effort by the sick person to keep the home in order to prevent contaminating the areas. Family members may also be required to live up to unreasonable standards of cleanliness to satisfy the OCD person. In other homes, compulsions such as hoarding are so out of hand that the home literally becomes a maze. Family members must maneuver through narrow trails, dodge tall stacks of boxes, newspapers or whatever is hoarded.
What’s the cause?
To understand the OCD mind, many researchers explain the brain is stuck, in a sense. It replays a particular thought over and over again, like a broken record. In other words, it tricks the sufferer. They cannot trust their own judgment. Those who don’t understand OCD often ask the afflicted, ‘Why don’t you just stop?’
But it isn’t that simple. Researchers believe the disorder is neurobiological. Therefore, the obsessions are not a matter of choice. Differences have been found in the brain of OCD sufferers through brain imaging techniques. Some studies have found abnormalities in the neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. The occurrence of OCD is also higher in families with depressive and anxiety disorders. For most, there’s no known event that relates to their particular obsession(s). Still, researchers feel environmental stressors may play at least some role in the development of OCD for those who are biologically predisposed.
Is there help?
Although there’s no known cure for OCD, there’s a number of treatments available. Caution should be used in weighing out treatment options though. Some purported treatments are not supported by a preponderance of evidence. Questionable treatments for OCD include psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, psychosurgery and electro convulsive therapy (ECT).
The two most common, effective and proven forms of treatment available for OCD are psychotropic drugs and behavioral therapy. Many doctors suggest medication in combination with behavioral therapy. This way suffers can learn techniques to relieve or stop the intrusive thoughts and to control compulsive behaviors.
The severity of untreated OCD generally tends to worsen over time. It can become completely debilitating. If someone in your family has symptoms of OCD, contact your mental health provider for a confidential evaluation. With proper treatment, many OCD sufferers are able to lead normal and productive lives.
● Fear of running over someone while driving
● Fear of contamination
● Fear of harming others
● Fear of blurting obscenities or insults
● Preoccupation with a part of the body
● Violent, horrific or disgusting images
● Superstitions or persistent thoughts of lucky/unlucky colors, etc.
● Extreme concern with religious issues, values or morals
● Repeated checking of doors, ovens, locks, plugs, etc.
● Repeated rituals such as counting, going in and out doors a number of times, etc.
● Excessive arranging and rearranging
● Hoarding or collecting mail, newspapers, food, etc.
● Repeated confessions or asking repeated questions for reassurance
● Prolonged or repeated bathing or hand washing
● Repeatedly checking for mistakes
● Repeatedly drawing up lists
You may also be interested in reading “Resources for Addressing Mental Health Challenges at Work.”
The contents of this article are not intended as medical advice. Talk to your medical professional.
Photos courtesy of CDC.