Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD, is frequently misrepresented and misunderstood. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say “oh, I’m so OCD” when they double-check that the door is locked, or the shoes are lined up neatly on the porch. It’s a phrase often used by many who are usually not suffering from OCD. These light-hearted phrases can actually be hurtful and invalidating to individuals experiencing OCD, as it minimizes the distress and major life disruption that OCD can cause.
So, what is OCD? OCD is an anxiety disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life, and is identified by an ongoing cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, urges or images that trigger very distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors a person does in an attempt to get rid of their obsessions and/or decrease their emotional distress.
Let’s look at a specific example. One of the more well-known subtypes of OCD is Contamination OCD. With this subtype, a person might experience obsessions about getting sick and notice intrusive thoughts like “If I touch that then I’ll get sick” “If I don’t wash my hands then I’ll become ill” “What if I get sick from standing too close to that person?”. Compulsions might look like washing hands for a specific period of time, avoiding people or things that are seen as contaminated, using a barrier (shirt sleeve, plastic bag, etc.) to touch contaminated objects, keeping a mental list of things they’ve touched, etc.
It’s important to note that we've highlighted just a few of the many, many obsessions and compulsions that might be present with this subtype. The following resource provides a more in-depth look at Contamination OCD and the many nuances that won’t fit into this blog post: https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/expert-opinion-contamination/
There are several sub-types of OCD. Some frequently go undetected by OCD sufferers themselves, friends, family, physicians and even mental health professionals because they do not have easy-to-spot compulsions. Examples of other (but not all) subtypes include Relationship OCD, Scrupulosity OCD, Harm OCD, ‘Just Right’ OCD, and Real Events OCD. To read more about different OCD sub-types, check out this article: https://www.treatmyocd.com/blog/a-quick-guide-to-some-common-ocd-subtypes Remember that an individual can suffer from more than one subtype at a time and/or their subtype can change throughout their lifespan.
You might find yourself thinking, “sometimes I have intrusive thoughts”, does that mean I have OCD? Not necessarily. We all experience intrusive thoughts, often even on a daily basis. But when we don’t have OCD (or another mental health disorder), we can usually notice that it seems like an ‘odd thought’ and go about our day. Even if you sometimes find yourself engaging in behavior to get rid of anxiety or other distressing emotions, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD.
According to Anxiety Canada, you might have OCD if:
1) You spend a lot of time thinking about (or avoiding) your obsessions and/or performing your compulsions.
2) You feel quite anxious or nervous most of the time.
3) Your daily life is significantly affected by it. For example, your OCD might cause you to take hours to do a small task (e.g. writing a casual email), get in the way of spending time with your family and friends, or prevent you from meeting work deadlines or even getting out of the house.”
So, what should you do, if you or a loved one is experiencing OCD? We recommend speaking with a mental health professional who has experience in treating OCD as well as speaking with your family doctor.
It’s important to note that the most effective treatment for OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), so look for a practitioner who has training in that particular modality, if possible. If that’s not available locally, ERP can be provided virtually.
Below are some additional resources if you’re looking to learn more about OCD and ERP:
Website, Anxiety Canada, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: https://www.anxietycanada.com/disorders/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-2/
Website, Treat My OCD: https://www.treatmyocd.com/blog/what-is-exposure-and-response-prevention-therapy
Podcast, Your Anxiety Toolkit, Episode 86 The Science of Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) https://kimberleyquinlan.libsyn.com/ep-86-the-science-of-exposure-and-response-prevention-erp
Reading Recommendations: https://www.treatmyocd.com/blog/5-must-read-books-for-people-struggling-with-ocd
Sources for this article:
- Cheryl Close
Counsellor, MA, CCC