‘Un-tidy! Un-tidy! Un-tidy!’
What is obsessive compulsive disorder?
It’s normal for us to have certain phases where we fall in love with something for a short period of time, only for it to become passé later on in life. It’s also normal for us to have some things that we are deeply passionate about throughout the course of our lives; these things in moderation can enhance our lives and they can often help us get to know people that we otherwise would probably not have even talked to, particularly within this globalized online society.
I know myself that I’ve had things in my life that I’ve discovered in my childhood or adolescence and they’ve grown along with me and I can appreciate them both in a current and nostalgic sense. On a personal note, it’s funny looking back at certain TV shows, music and books: some do last the test of time and do appeal to adults as much as kids. Sometimes as an adult you can pick up on jokes and nuances that previously went over your head, and an example where I enjoyed the movies years later are the Disney classics. I watched them again recently after not touching them for over a decade, and I can definitely understand why are considered as such: as well as the ground-breaking animation for the times, there are definitely things in them that are truly gutsy to put in front of kids, and in my opinion that’s probably why they’ve stood up so well. Then again, there are some things which I loved as a kid that I’ve touched upon again as an adult, and after viewing them, I was left seriously disappointed and sometimes confused with myself that I could have ever enjoyed something so lame.
However, there is a limitation to how much we can obsess over something before it turns from a healthy part of life to something all-consuming. When certain thought patterns become engrained to a point where they get in the way of your day-to-day activities, that’s when it becomes dangerous, and this state of mind is what is known as obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD for short. There are several different types of thoughts which are intrusive, and these thoughts are often responsible for triggering a high state of anxiety which is abnormal for the circumstances in which they are in. These types of thoughts can also trigger the person to commit certain types of actions which are beyond the point of necessity: these actions are known in the clinical world as compulsions. It is thought that OCD is triggered by a chemical imbalance within the brain, but like with many psychological conditions associated with this organ, it is very difficult to confirm this theory and it is more than likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors which can trigger the disorder in some people.
What types of thoughts can trigger OCD?
Like I said above, there are multiple types of thoughts which can trigger OCD. For most sufferers, there is a double-layered issue with this condition: as well as being unable to stop themselves from having these thoughts and/or performing these certain tasks, they are often aware of how much they are really doing it but find it difficult to break the habit.
Some of the types of thoughts that may appear include the following:
- Hoarding of objects
Since this particular area of OCD is relatively specialized yet complicated, I’ll dedicate a special page to it. It could be argued this may be directly related to OCD, however others think that hoarding is a totally separate disorder. You can find more information about hoarding here.
- Having an obsession with orderliness and symmetry
OCD is not the only condition that displays this symptom: this may also be indicative of being on the ASD spectrum. You can find out more about the ASD spectrum here.
- Being germophobic to a point which is unhealthy
Being hygienic is a good thing as it helps us to remain healthy for as much as possible, but there is a staggering difference between maintaining normal hygiene and the ritualization associated with OCD. These people often have a fear of catching something even if their immune system is strong to begin with, and they become anal with cleaning to the point where any trace of dirt or perceived ‘germs’ can trigger a high level of anxiety.
- Performing certain rituals constantly around the household as a response to an irrational fear
One of the most debilitating forms of OCD in my humble opinion is that where sufferers continually perform housework even when things are considered tidy by the general population and constantly checking the positioning of certain objects. This is often driven by a recurring thought that if these things aren’t done a certain number of times or if certain things aren’t in their place, the people that they loved will become harmed. In the most severe cases, this fear may confine these people to their houses and they find themselves unable to work or be able to take holidays without suffering massive panic attacks: in a sense, they are in solitary confinement without committing any crimes whatsoever.
- Becoming obsessive with being ‘moral’ or ‘religious’
I know, I’m probably treading on some toes here: despite the fact that I’m agnostic by nature, in general, I respect that many people find their faith by regularly attending church services and by following the rules that the religion sets out for them. Despite the fact that I am strongly sceptical of dogma and I haven’t attended church regularly since I became an adult, if others choose to follow it in a peaceful nature without contradicting the laws in the country that they live in, that’s up to them. How does this relate to OCD then? Well, there are unfortunately some people that find religion and then take it to the extreme. In case you’re thinking, no, I’m not talking about those who choose to dedicate their lives to a higher being such as becoming a nun or a priest, that’s their conscious choice.
What I mean are those people who are religious zealots: these people are often very critical of society and how it doesn’t coincide with their belief system. Truthfully, these people are also often hypercritical of themselves for doing something which may be fun but may be against what they believe in. You may know those people: those who tend to criticize you for any choice you make that’s considered a ‘sin’. I’m sure that those of you that have watched at least a couple of episodes of the Simpsons are familiar with the character of Ned Flanders: he’s a classic example of a religious zealot, and even though he displays some of the characteristics in early seasons, he becomes even more obsessive after his wife Maude’s passing. OCD, however, isn’t the only condition that can trigger this kind of behaviour: this may be used as a coping mechanism by those suffering from schizophrenia. You can learn more about this condition here.
- Micromanaging your life to a T
Sure, there’s nothing wrong with being organized; in fact, it’s usually a good thing as it can help minimize stress and though some people get off at doing things in the last minute, for most of us, we feel more at ease when we have booked things long in advance, particularly when it comes to organizing special occasions or holidays. However, for people with OCD, they take the concept of organization to the extreme. You may know someone like this; they plan things to the minute and leave no room for spontaneity or fun in their lives, for fear of either being ‘bored’ or being ‘inadequate’ in front of other people. I find it sad, really, as someone who enjoys both having adventures and yet can also appreciate a night in my daggy nightwear in front of the TV or in bed. In my humble opinion, sometimes being ‘bored’ is a good thing as it can help unlock the imagination and your ability to improvise.
What are the compulsions associated with OCD?
Some of the compulsions associated with OCD are purely focused internally i.e. they are done purely within the mind, and other compulsions are much more visible to other people. Compulsions are notoriously tricky to break due to the cycle of anxiety, which I’ve demonstrated below in the cycle chart.
I’ve already briefly discussed a couple of them above, and I’ll list them here, but there are some others which I’ve missed. Some of the externalized compulsions include the following:
- Constantly washing your hands
In my humble opinion, sometimes this world is obsessed with germs to the point where our immune systems are not often given the chance to distinguish the difference between what is truly a threat and what is considered harmless. From my immunology training at university, I honestly think that the increase of allergic reactions in the developed world is in part due to this fear of catching germs: for kids and for adults alike, it’s good to get a little dirty sometimes in order to give our immune systems a chance to become primed and to prevent inappropriate reactions. Anyway, rant over: most people are well-versed in being hygienic: however, people with OCD have a tendency to go too far. Sufferers of germ-related OCD tend to use anti-microbial products and often wash their hands to the point where the integrity of the skin layer becomes compromised, and yet they continue to perform the ritual due to the fear of catching something.
- Having an obsession with their own safety
This is similar in a way to the case I’ve talked above: this type of OCD involves the need to touch objects so many times in order to reassure themselves that the things are working as they should be. People with this type of OCD have a constant need to check the security on their door or potentially dangerous appliances such as gas stoves and other kitchen items for a fear of them potentially getting harmed or killed.
- Completing rituals a certain amount of times
This is probably the most famous type of OCD. As I mentioned above, this is often tied in with completing housework obsessively in response to a fear of harm coming to people close to them if they don’t follow a strict set of rules. This particular type of OCD a can be very difficult to break, as despite their best intentions, they are trapped in a cycle where the rituals appear to be relaxing their anxiety, however the source of anxiety is irrational to begin with so therefore it is constantly being fed regardless of external stimuli which would suggest otherwise. . More often than not, these people are self-aware of the absurdity of the rituals they are performing, however due to their chemical imbalances they have difficulty stopping themselves cold turkey; in a way it’s similar to giving up smoking in that the urges to recommence the action are very strong. A sense of perfectionism can pollute the situation even further, as some sufferers tie in the ‘perfect’ placement of certain objects to the safety of their loved ones.
- Having a constant need for reassurance that everything is OK
This is one of the more subtle forms of OCD in that it tends to remain internal rather than put out there for the world to see. There are several methods with which this form of OCD can play out: this form of OCD is derived from the fear that thinking ‘bad’ thoughts or keeping secrets is not permissible (which of course, is completely irrational) and in order to keep ‘good’ or ‘pure’ thoughts, they repeat certain words in their head or concentrate on certain numbers or confess constantly to other people.
How can the cycle of OCD be broken?
The best method of tackling this condition is first recognizing that there is a genuine problem, and then going for a multi-pronged approach to nip the disorder in the bud. For some people, medications such as antidepressants/SSRIs may be necessary, but for this disorder that form of treatment alone is not sufficient as it only tackles the problems on the surface and does not get to the heart of the disorder. The most practical approach in severe cases of OCD is to meet up with a psychologist or psychiatrist and figuring out what is ultimately leading to the obsessive thoughts and the compulsions taking place and learning to desensitize yourself so your anxiety eventually drops to nil. Unfortunately, like many bad habits, this disorder is stubborn and it takes persistence and much practice to break free from its clutches, but it can be done with long-term therapy.
There are also alternative methods to try if you feel your case is mild and you are able to try and tackle the problem yourself; these methods include the following:
- Breathing techniques and meditation
- Using a diary or a Dictaphone to record what your obsessions are
- Giving yourself permission at some point in the day to ‘worry’ about the things that are bugging you
- Anticipating when the urges are about to appear so you apply distraction techniques
- Exercising or playing video games which require a large amount of concentration