OCD is one of the most debilitating of all mental health conditions. According to The National Institute of Mental Health it affects about 2.3% of the adult population at any given time and occurs across all ages, genders, and ethnicities. This figure does not include the number of children affected by childhood OCD or PANDAS.
OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of or neutralize obsessions and therefor decrease levels of distress. Compulsions may be mental or in the persons head as in repeating a word or phrase or visible externally as in repeated hand washing to ease fears of becoming sick or contaminated.
While everyone experiences unwanted or upsetting thoughts from time to time, the difference for a person with OCD is that the thoughts begin to occupy a large portion of their day, begin to cause distress, and affect a person's ability to function in everyday life. Sometimes the individual may attach meaning to thoughts where no meaning exists. Common obsessions may include contamination, unwanted sexual thoughts, harm thoughts, loss of control, religious thoughts or scrupulosity, thoughts about perfection or order.
If you are struggling with OCD you may be having a variety of different feelings. You may feel frustrated because you know that logically your thoughts do not make sense. You might feel like you are going crazy or losing your mind. You try desperately to push the upsetting thoughts out of your mind by engaging in compulsions either mental or physical to try and get some relief. When an upsetting thought enters your mind panic sets in and before you know it you are having a full blown panic attack. You begin avoiding any situations that might put you in danger of having your thought become a reality. The thoughts and your attempts to control them becomes exhausting and you may even start to have trouble sleeping at night, feel sick to your stomach, or lose your appetite.
Seeing a news story about a murderer sends you over the edge because you think that could be you pretty soon. Alternately, you might be engaging in elaborate rituals to keep yourself and your family from becoming contaminated with germs. You feel that if you don't do these things everyone in your family will get sick and die and it will be all your fault. These are just some of the ways you might be suffering if you have OCD.
First I want to assure you that you are not crazy and that help is available. In fact, OCD sufferers are often some of the most kind and moral individuals around and least likely to cause harm to others. If you are experiencing symptoms of OCD, it may be time to get some help.
Treatment of OCD involves Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to work through unhelpful thinking patterns, Exposure Therapy to desensitize the individual to the upsetting thoughts, and Mindfulness practices to teach the sufferer how to tolerate these thoughts without attaching meaning to them or placing judgement on them. It is our interpretation of the thoughts that causes us to have the distress. Therefore, learning to view the thoughts as "just thoughts" can be helpful but only when paired with mindfulness practices. Sometimes an investigation around what may have triggered the thoughts may be worthwhile but the primary focus is not to figure out where the thoughts originated as this can feed into the OCD cycle. We will work together on practicing bringing the upsetting thoughts into the present without using compulsions either mental or physical to repel the thoughts. This is often referred to as Exposure and Response Prevention. Pushing unwanted thoughts away only makes them resurface with more power later. We will need work on accepting that the thoughts are there and allowing them to be there until our anxiety subsides. This will help you to see that there is no actual danger that exists as a result of the thought.
If your symptoms are becoming too difficult to manage on your own you may decide that you want to try medication. There are many SSRI medications that can be used and can greatly reduce symptoms of OCD. Consult a good psychiatrist to help decide on a medication that works for you.