Do you have to wash your hands every time you touch something which does not belong to you? How about turning back and checking that you have really turned off the lights at home, every time you go out? Then going back again to see if the fridge is really closed … and then again to check that you have locked the door properly?
Perhaps your pen, pencil, laptop and briefcase always have to be aligned in a certain manner, in the same angled way, before you can start working? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you might be suffering from a syndrome known as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Obsessions are uncontrollable thoughts, images or impulses which occur involuntarily in a person’s mind. Compulsions are usually a kind of behavioural pattern or ritual which is performed in order to attempt to make an obsession go away. For example, if you are afraid of being ‘contaminated,’ you probably might develop cleaning rituals, in order to feel a sense of relief. Unfortunately, this sense of relief never lasts, as usually the feeling of anxiety linked to obsession comes back even stronger.
Usually, this disorder first appears in adolescence or early adulthood, developing in young adults between 14 and 24 years of age. Men tend to develop OCD at a younger age than women, however, it is reported that there is a higher percentage of women suffering from OCD than men.
The symptoms of OCD change over time, therefore a person who might have started off with having to compulsively wash his/her hands before and after touching an item of food might end up having to wash them every time s/he touches anything outside his/her home or having to have a shower eight to ten times a day.
Most people with obsessive-compulsive disorder generally fall into either one of five categories (they could have more than one):
Checkers – these are people who have to repeatedly check things which they associate with danger. For example, they feel a compulsion to check that the oven has been turned off – very often as once is not enough and they have to do this many times. They have to check that they have locked their garage door more than once or call to check that their children are really at school, etc.
Washers – are afraid of being dirty or contaminated. These usually have cleaning or washing compulsions.
Sinners – are afraid that if everything is not done exactly right, there will be terrible consequences. For example, an individual might be afraid that if he has not left the remote control in its place, exactly near the TV screen, something bad will happen.
Arrangers – are obsessed with order and symmetry. They might have beliefs or superstitions about certain numbers, colours, or forms.
Hoarders – are people who are afraid of what could happen should they throw anything away. They compulsively keep things for years on end – this could be all their receipts, food bills, packaging boxes and other items they think they might need one day.
It is normal for a person to sometimes have doubts on whether s/he has really turned off the lights before leaving the house, or feel the need to wash their hands after having touched something disputable. What is not normal is when these compulsions produce such great feelings of unease, tension, anxiety and worry, that the person starts becoming angry, violent and irrational.
Compulsive behaviour often ends up becoming very demanding and time-consuming. If you waste more than half an hour each time you leave your house because you have to go back five or six times in order to check various things, this might cause problems. This kind of behaviour could also become intrusive and out of control, leading to problems when it comes to interpersonal relationships with others.
Adults with OCD often spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid anything which might trigger their symptoms. Sometimes, this avoidance can be extreme and cause strange or uncomfortable behaviour. Likewise, they can also try to cope with their OCD by involving their family or friends in their obsessions. They might force someone to change their shoes and clothes at the door, so that they won’t come into the house with ‘contaminated’ material, or they might not let them use certain words.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder does not go away by itself, so it is important to seek professional treatment. This usually combines medication together with cognitive behavioural therapy, which teaches people to confront their fears and behaviour while reducing the anxiety and stress which their obsessive worrying brings about.
Do you know anyone who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
How does it affect their lives?