What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Really?

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Really?

I know a lot of people who claim to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Perhaps some of them, like my wife, just claim OCD as a light-hearted way to explain their Type A personalities. Yet others I know are quite serious about it. That leads me to wonder what OCD really is.

A little research uncovered that OCD is a diagnosable mental health disorder characterised by a continuing cycle of obsessions and compulsions. It can affect people of all ages and both sexes. Unfortunately, science is not clear about what causes it. Treatment is often rooted in a combination of psychotherapy and psychiatry.

Obsessions and Compulsions

Nearly everyone experiences obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours at various points in their lives. But according to London psychotherapist María R. de Almeida, that does not mean we are all OCD. Obsessions and compulsions are no different than any other thought or behavioural pattern. They are normal and necessary. It is only when they get out of control that there is cause to worry.

The International OCD Foundation defines obsessions as “unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings.” If you are truly obsessed with something, it will constantly invade your thoughts. Moreover, those thoughts will be unwanted. The more frequently they occur, the more distressing they become.

Moving on to compulsions, they are defined as “behaviours an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.” This definition cannot be stressed enough. It is one thing to be compulsive over housecleaning, for example. It is another thing to practice compulsive cleaning behaviours for the express purpose of addressing obsessive feelings.

The Two Work Together

In a person who generally suffers from OCD, obsessions and compulsions work together to control the person’s life. Obsessive thoughts lead to compulsive behaviours. In the midst of those behaviours, thoughts are triggered yet again. This creates an unending cycle that ultimately leads to the OCD person never feeling satisfied.

The key to understanding both is that they overwhelm the individual’s thoughts and actions. Genuine OCD patients describe feeling out of control most of the time. They find their thoughts emotionally distressing and psychologically disturbing. They describe their compulsive behaviours as shameful, disgusting, etc.

Some of the most common obsessions described by OCD patients include:

  • obsessions over contamination and cleanliness
  • fears of losing control of thoughts or emotions
  • obsessions over religion and/or morality
  • fear of harming themselves or others
  • obsessions over perfectionism.

Common compulsions among OCD patients include:

  • excessive washing and cleaning
  • constant checking of circumstances and conditions
  • repetitive behaviours
  • mental review of tasks and events to ensure a correct conclusion.

Someone who obsesses over physical harm may constantly wash his hands. He may be extremely fussy about cleanliness in every room in the home. By the same token, a person obsessed with perfection may redo a simple task over and over until it is perceived as being done right.

Nothing to Joke About

My research into obsessive-compulsive disorder has given me a new understanding of this very real condition. It is nothing to joke about. Having a Type A personality doesn’t necessarily make you OCD. Calling yourself OCD just because you are highly organised or prefer a more ordered lifestyle does a disservice to people who actually suffer from the disorder.

OCD is a very real mental disorder with defined characteristics. Thankfully, it is treatable. Psychotherapy is often the starting point. When necessary, patients can also transition to psychiatry. Either way, professional help is almost always required to get it under control.