What It Feels Like to Suffer From OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
An Unwelcome Illness
“I’m touching again,” says a college student in her 20s. She’s never sure what brings it on; stress maybe, but the “touching” makes her 10 minute shower another 10-15 minutes longer as she taps and counts first her razor, then her shampoo bottle, conditioner, and body wash. It makes no sense, and she does not know why she does it, but she has exhibited symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since very early elementary school. The disease has become part of her life; an unwelcome part, but one she deals with almost daily.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, “OCD affects about 2.2 million American adults. It strikes men and women in roughly equal numbers and usually appears in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. One-third of adults with OCD develop symptoms as children, and research indicates that OCD might run in families.”
What is OCD?
So how does one know if they have OCD, because being overly clean or organized doesn't necessarily mean you suffer OCD although it can be a part of it. People with OCD generally:
- Have repeated thoughts or images about many different things, such as fear of germs, dirt, or intruders; acts of violence; hurting loved ones; sexual acts; conflicts with religious beliefs; or being overly tidy
- Do the same rituals over and over such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, counting, keeping unneeded items, or repeating the same steps again and again
- Can't control the unwanted thoughts and behaviors
- Don't get pleasure when performing the behaviors or rituals, but get brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause
- Spend at least 1 hour a day on the thoughts and rituals, which cause distress and get in the way of daily life.
A Disorder of Doubt
OCD is not a respecter of persons. It has nothing to do with low IQ, bad parenting or something a person did to cause it. According to Annabella Hagen, Licensed Social Worker, "Research indicates that OCD sufferers often exhibit high creativity and imagination and above-average intelligence. For those experiencing primarily mental obsessions, it is difficult to dismiss a random weird thought as non-sufferers do."
OCD is a disorder of doubt. Sufferers doubt their thoughts, try to pick them apart and offer suffer great anxiety trying to figure out what's wrong. All the analyzing in the world doesn't fix the problem and only causes further suffering.
Exploring Bad Thoughts
"You are not so abnormal as you think." says Lee Baer, Ph.D., author of the book The Imp of the Mind - Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thought. Baer offers a compassionate voice for sufferers: "Every human being is visited from time to time by the Imp of the Perverse, who make you think the most inappropriate thoughts at the most inappropriate times."
Baer explores why some people are able to let bad thoughts pass through their minds and others will, "reach clinical severity requiring treatment." But for those suffering from the torment of bad thoughts, Baer offers a surprising perspective, "Bad thoughts do not signify that you are truly evil deep down, and voluntarily suppressing these thoughts will only make them stronger." This is the crux for many newer treatment options for patients with OCD. Exposure therapy is basically facing your fears head on and doing so habitually. Though maybe not as successful, Cognitive Therapy (modifying irrational thoughts) can also be helpful. Finally, some drugs, SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors) also prove effective in many cases.
SSRIs can be used to treat OCD
Newer Studies in OCD
And there is more hope for sufferers of OCD. Brain imaging studies are allowing researchers to see the areas of the brain that are active in patients with OCD (see video). Research also indicates some particular genes that might be involved. According to Medical News Today, "Particular genes that may play a role in the development of the condition include hSERT and SLC1A1." hSert in particular may actually be working in conjunction with another mutation that leads to less serotonin, "being available for neuronal communication."
Also, in the early stages is the use of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) for patients who are not responding to other treatment. For information on how DBS works, see this WebMD article.
This research and more being conducted is highly valuable to treating and finding a possible cure for OCD.
Dr. Wayne Goodman on Brain Imaging Studies of OCD
What Sufferers of OCD Say it Feels Like
In the meantime, OCD continues to wreak havoc in lives of many people. They deserve our understanding and our acknowledgment for their bravery as they fight forward through their illness.
When asked in an anonymous poll what OCD felt like, respondents shared the following thoughts:
- Irrational, hard-to-resist urges to do stupid things like licking one of my teeth in a certain way, clicking a mouse 7 times.
- Even more irrational. Like just opening and closing my door for no reason. It can be kind of scary feeling compelled to do something you know you don't need or even want to do.
- It feels like a huge magnet is sucking your brain into doing what you don't really want to do. OCD is exhausting...
- It feels like everything is just... OFF and can't be fixed until you do whatever your OCD ritual is.
- For me it's feeling like being scared. Think of walking around the corner and getting scared by a friend or something. Sometimes when I look at dirty dishes in the sink I feel physically scared. Its like my brain pictures germs all over them or something.
- It's very hard to convey the torture and irrationality that takes place on the mind... People experience different types of OCD, and many people experience many types. Mine have ranged from fear that I want to have sex with animals, children, God, foreign objects, and old people, to scrupulosity and fear that you are doomed to hell, to thinking you are a homosexual, convinced that your thoughts alone can hurt others, etc. there are so many ways it can manifest itself.
- OCD is like a monster, when in its worst form, keeps morphing into more sickening and frightening thoughts until you think someone should lock me far away in a padded room as I am completely crazy and unable to control my thoughts… it is at this point, even if I don’t want to die, I am desperate to find a way to shut off my brain. It is a very lonely, torturous journey…
- I undress her in my mind and my OCD kicks in and folds all of her clothes.
OCD: No Respecter of Persons
- Baer, L. (2001). The imp of the mind: Exploring the silent epidemic of obsessive bad thoughts. New York: Dutton.
- Hagen, A. (n.d.). What OCD Feels Like: Being Absolutely Uncertain. Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-ocd-feels-like-being-absolutely-uncertain/00012600
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD. (n.d.). Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
- What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? What causes obsessive-compulsive behavior? (2014, September 25). Retrieved December 18, 2014, from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/178508
For more information and to find a therapist or treatment program, visit the International OCD Foundation.