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What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

The typical idea that comes to mind when we think of a person with OCD is someone that straightens and tidies everything in sight; someone who gets annoyed when things aren’t tidy. However, characteristics of OCD can range from, someone who cannot stop washing their hands, someone who has to double check you aren’t mad at them a few times a day, or someone who does some behaviour that we might think is strange, such as tapping the light switch over and over.

When we think of the word “obsessed”, we tend to think of that friend that is very into that band, or has every single Harry Potter thing available. In psychology, the word has a different meaning. An obsession is a thought, image, or urge that just keeps coming back. We can try to think about other things or tell ourselves the thought is silly, and yet it still continues. Having this persistent obsession can lead to people starting to question their own reality, resulting in feelings of anxiety, worry, annoyance, and fear. An example of an intrusive thought could be “You left the oven on. The house will burn down”. The first few times this thought comes back, it’s easy to push it away; “No, I’m pretty sure I turned it off before I left for work”. But then the thought continues, and sometimes we can start to think “Did I turn it off? Yes, yes I am sure I did. But what if I didn’t?”. This is how obsessions can lead to compulsions, the second part of OCD. A compulsion is an act or a thought that neutralises the obsession and gets rid of that feeling, at least for a little while. An example could be washing your hands if the thought is around contamination. So compulsions help in the short term, but then the obsession often comes back; “You didn’t wash your hands properly, you will make someone sick”; “The house will burn down”. When this happens, we often do the compulsion again, because it worked the first time right?

This is how OCD can develop. We can end up repetitively doing things that we can clearly tell are not necessary and take up a lot of time, but we do them “just in case”. What we know about compulsions from research is that while they reduce anxiety in the short-term, they increase it in the long term. If you feel like this describes you or someone you know, they might benefit from having a conversation with their GP or psychologist. OCD is very treatable, and we don’t have to do the compulsions again and again to find relief.

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