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Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

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

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

Symptoms of OCD

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 in 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

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

It is not the occurrence of these thoughts that causes OCD – everyone experiences unwanted, intrusive and distressing thoughts. It is the anxiety such thoughts cause and one's response to them that is the source of the OCD. A sufferer's response to these thoughts will have one of two themes:

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

This way of interpreting thoughts produces the anxiety that sufferers of OCD feel, and this anxiety generate behaviours that are an attempt to cope. These behaviours may be repetitive or compulsive acts that you feel driven to perform to control your 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 the following 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 that is caused by those thoughts. OCD symptoms can be confusing as symptoms fluctuate in intensity and can change. While some people's OCD symptoms do not change, for others it is not unusual for symptoms to become like a roller coaster if left untreated.

Many people suffer from OCD in silence for years as they are not aware of the conditions and are too embarrassed to seek help. Getting the the help you need is key if you think you are suffering with OCD. The most important thing to remember is that, while OCD can be a severe psychological problem, it 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, who may find some aspects of the condition frustrating or exhausting.

Family, friends and carers are often unaware of how best to 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 itself, so you can support them as best you can.

While 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 to ensure that they don’t feel judged and to reassure them that you are there to love and support them.

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