Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common anxiety-related mental health condition. It can affect anyone, at any age; some people develop the condition early, often around puberty but it typically develops during early adulthood.

OCD presents itself in many guises and there are lots of different symptoms that the sufferer can experience, such as having obsessional and intrusive thoughts or the carrying out of compulsive behaviours. OCD symptoms can be very distressing and can significantly interfere with the quality life of the sufferer and impact upon the lives of their loved ones.

There are two main types of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions.

  • Obsessions are persistent and uncontrollable thoughts, images, urges, worries, fears or doubts that repeatedly appear your mind. They can make you feel very anxious
  • Compulsions are repetitive physical behaviours or mental thought rituals that are performed over and over again in an attempt to relieve the anxiety caused by obsessional thoughts

Symptoms of OCD

OCD is typically characterised by unwanted, intrusive and often distressing thoughts or images entering your mind that trigger anxiety.

It is not the occurrence of these thoughts that causes OCD – unwanted, intrusive or distressing thoughts are things that everyone experiences. It is the anxiety and the following response to them that is the source of the OCD. The response to these thoughts will have one of two themes:

  1. Because I have thought it means I have done it / it has happened
  2. Because I have thought it means I want to do it / want it to happen

It is this interpretation of the thoughts that produces the anxiety, from which, follows a behaviour which acts as an attempt to cope. These behaviours may be repetitive or compulsive acts that you feel driven to perform to control the anxiety.

Causes of OCD

There are different theories about why OCD develops. None of these theories can fully explain every person’s experience, but researchers suggest that these could contribute to the onset of OCD:

  • Having 'dysfunctional' beliefs - this is about the relationship you have with your thoughts. Those with OCD often believe that they have more responsibility for an external life situation than they actually do. Because of this, their response to their thoughts may be out of proportion, triggering an OCD cycle
  • Personal experience - there are some theories that say that your personal experience might increase the likelihood of developing OCD symptoms. This might be a painful childhood experience, a stressful life event or even a learnt behaviour from close family members who may have exhibited OCD behaviour patterns
  • Biological factors - some researchers believe that low levels of the chemical serotonin in the brain might be related to developing OCD, but it is unclear as to whether it is a cause or an effect of the symptoms

How to look after yourself when living with OCD

If you have OCD, it is likely that you are able to logically challenge any obsessive thoughts. However you will still feel compelled to do whatever it is that will decrease the anxiety being caused by those thoughts. OCD symptoms can be confusing as symptoms fluctuate in intensity and can change. Whilst for some people OCD symptoms will remain unchanged, for others it is not unusual for symptoms to become like a roller coaster if left untreated.

Many have suffered in silence for years with OCD, not understanding the condition and often feeling embarrassed to seek help. Getting help the help you need is key if you think you are suffering with OCD. The most important thing to remember that while OCD can be a severe psychological problem, it is one that responds to psychological treatment, so it is possible to live a life free of OCD.

How to support a loved one suffering from OCD

OCD can have a big impact on the person’s family and friends too, who may find some aspects frustrating and often exhausting.

Family, friends and carers are often unaware of how to best help a loved one suffering with OCD. Symptoms can be hard to understand and can interfere with the daily functioning of a family.

If you have a loved one suffering from symptoms of OCD find out as much as you can about OCD and the different ways it can manifest, so you can support them as best you can.

Whilst it is probably best not to assist your loved one with any compulsive behaviours or rituals (often termed accommodation), it is important to be patient with them and ensure that they don’t feel judged and assure them that you are there to love and support them.