Patricia was convinced that when she went to her hairdresser she was going to contract a sexually transmitted disease. Andy couldn’t get the thought out of his head that he had killed his boss because a picture flashed in his mind of hurting him. Sophie washed her hands for at least two hours a day but could not stop feeling like she was covered in germs. Peter tried to resist going home to check if he had turned off the stove, but he kept asking himself, “what if?”
All of these people suffer from an illness called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. OCD has hit the mainstream through TV shows like “Monk,” and movies like “The Aviator.” But what is OCD? Who has it, and why? Can it be treated, and if so, how?
As far as we understand it today, OCD is a mental illness that is caused by a flawed circuit in the brain. It is not caused by bad parenting and is certainly not the fault of the sufferer.
For those who have OCD, this can be a terribly painful illness. It is like being stuck in a nightmare from which you cannot awake. The same painful, terrifying thought goes around in your head and never stops, even if another part of you knows that thought makes no sense. The overwhelming urge to repeat the same senseless act cannot be resisted. It usually goes along with great physical and emotional discomfort. This can lead to a life of non-stop torment. It not only impacts the life of the person with OCD, but also all the people around them
Here is a simple way to understand how OCD works. First, a “trigger event” occurs. For example, a person might see someone cough without covering their mouth. This makes the OCD sufferer begin to feel anxiety. But they are not aware of their feeling. What they are aware of is the thought in their head. They may think, “I’ve just contracted the avian flu and I am going to die.” This thought explodes the nervousness they already feel. Their heart pounds, their mouth gets dry, and they can barely move. The thought is now stuck in their head and this becomes all they can think about relentlessly for days or weeks. This is the obsessive part of the illness. They don’t think that they are having an episode of OCD. Instead, they become possessed with getting rid of their germs. They run home, not touching anything on the way. When they get there, they spend hours washing, showering, and disinfecting everything in the house, hoping to kill the germs they believe they have contracted. This is the compulsive part. The cleaning gives relief for a few seconds, but before they know it, the thought is back in their head. They call their doctor seeking reassurance that they have not been infected. For a minute or two they feel better when the doctor tells them they are ok. But then they feel a tickle in their nose and sneeze. Things get worse from here.
What the sufferer does not realize is that the problem isn’t the risk of death. The problem is OCD and the anxiety connected to it. Unfortunately, though the compulsive action, like washing or asking for reassurance, may give short-term relief, it actually makes the problem worse. It is like an addiction: using the drug may make the person feel better in the moment, but it makes the craving for the drug, the addiction, worse, and as time goes on, they need to use more and more of the drug to get the same relief.
So what can a person do?
Sufferers are fortunate because there are things that can be done to control the symptoms of OCD. First, anti-depressant medications called SSRI’s can be very helpful. Ongoing supportive therapy can be helpful to the sufferer and those close to the sufferer. Learning everything you can about the syndrome is important, and there are organizations that can be very helpful with that like the International OCD Foundation.
Finally, I have a method that I find can bring a great deal of relief to the sufferer, especially with repeated use. The point of this method is to get the person’s mind off of their thought and bring their awareness to their body and the emotion of anxiety. The solution to OCD is not to be found in the repetitive behavior. The solution is to be found in bringing down anxiety. To be able to use and practice this method where and when you need it, try my app for iPhone® and the iPod touch®, Shrinky:Anxiety available on the App Store.