We’ve all heard the phrase (or at least something similar) “Sorry, I’m just OCD” said in regular conversation. But what exactly is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)? Having a brother with severe OCD has made me realize that the disorder is much more than simply alphabetizing your DVD collection because it’s easier to find things that way. OCD can affect a person’s life to varying degrees, the worst of it preventing the individual from working or going about their daily life.
The history of diagnosing and understanding OCD is long and detailed. According to the Stanford school of medicine, OCD was originally thought in the seventeenth century to be a form of “religious melancholy.” By 1838, Esquirol wrote in his psychiatric textbook that OCD was a “form of monomania, or partial insanity.” The scientists and doctors of the time went on like this until Sigmund Freud developed the idea of Obsessive Compulsive Order being its own separate disorder in the last part of the nineteenth century. Today, doctors are able to diagnose and treat individuals that have OCD and help them cope with their obsessions.
As of right now, scientists do not know exactly what causes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Two possibilities right now are either that there may be a problem with two parts of the brain communicating with each other, or a lack of the chemical serotonin. One of the clearest causes the disorder is that it can be passed down through families. Even though we do not currently know the main cause of this disorder, there are some clear symptoms that help doctors diagnose their patients. Some symptoms include obsessive ideas or thoughts, which are defined as being unwanted and constant, and the compulsions, which are the actions that are taken to appease the obsessive thoughts. A common example of this would be a person who is obsessed with germs and cleanliness may spend much longer washing their hands than most people, sometimes even doing it many times throughout the day. Along with OCD, many patients may also develop eating disorders, anxiety, or depression.
There are a couple of different methods to treating this disorder. One of those is psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavior therapy. This helps the person how to cope with their obsessions and how to avoid submitting to their thoughts and compulsions. This and exposure and response prevention, another form of psychotherapy, are both very effective in helping develop healthy coping skills in patients with OCD. Medication is another alternative to psychotherapy. Most doctors prescribe either a form of anti-anxiety medication or an antidepressant. Neither method is proven to be more effective than the other; it all depends on how the patient responds to the treatments. Some prefer the medication, some prefer the psychotherapy, and others prefer a combination of the two.
Remember: OCD is a real, and many times serious, disorder. It is more than just organizing your closet, or straightening a pencil on your desk. People with Obsessive Compulsive Order do not receive joy from their compulsions. It is something they feel they must do, and at best will feel “brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause” (NIMH). If you suspect that you may have OCD, which affects approximately 2.2 million adult Americans, you can talk to your doctor about your symptoms.
National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
Stanford School of Medicine: http://ocd.stanford.edu/treatment/history.html