OCD at a Glance
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) affects many people in America. You are not alone if you struggle with this condition. About 2.5 million Americans are affected by OCD at some point of their lives--and I used to be one of them.
My OCD symptoms first appeared when I was about seven years old. The condition grew over the years, leaving me feeling plagued by irrational thoughts and feelings. I didn't know what was going on and had no understanding of it until my early twenties. It was then that I got help from a counselor who helped me cope with, manage, and reduce my OCD.
Cultural OCD - This is a term I use with my clients to help them understand what OCD is not. Imagine someone keeping their office desk, house, and yard impeccably clean and precisely organized. A friend of theirs says, "You are so OCD!" Well, this person might have OCD. But, simply having an intensely focused desire to be clean and organized may just be a trait of their personality type.
Clinical OCD - This is the condition that disrupts a person's ability to personally and socially cope. Obsessions refer to persistent, unwanted thoughts. Compulsions refer to ritualistic and/or repetitive behaviors that are often performed as a way to combat the unwanted obsessive thoughts and urges. Urges, another symptom of clinical OCD, are characterized by a person feeling an unwanted impulsive desire to do something obscure, scary, or socially inappropriate.
Every person has obsessive-compulsive tendencies to some degree. This is a normal part of being human! It becomes a disorder when the tendencies are repetitive, controlling, and cause the individual to not fully function personally and/or socially.
Imagine a person who is looking forward to their upcoming vacation. They find themselves thinking about their trip morning, noon, and night. This is an example of wanted thoughts: their pervasive thought patterns relate to something relevant and meaningful to them.
Now imagine a person who has strange thoughts that seem to "come out of nowhere." The thoughts may be grotesque, violent, sexual, or spiritual in nature. The person feels deeply distressed and guilty about the horrors flooding their mind. This is an example of unwanted thoughts: their pervasive thought patterns relate to something outside their will and personal value system.
Imagine a person who accidentally touches dog poop in their back yard while picking up their dog's toy. The individual, completely grossed out, quickly washes their hands three times and applies a generous amount of hand sanitizer thereafter. This is an example of a reasonable behavior: their thorough hand washing fits the situation.
Now imagine a person who can't get the thoughts out of their head about the trillions of germs living on surfaces, floating in the air, and reproducing on the human body. The individual washes their hands 10 times (a "mystical" number they feel is appropriate for warding off germs). By the end of the 10th wash their hands are red, raw, and stinging with pain. And, about a half hour later, they repeat the cycle again.
This is an example of unreasonable behavior: their thorough hand washing exceeds the situation. The person may not like the repetitive washing--they may even despise it--yet they feel compelled/obligated to keep doing it because it is "necessary" to keep clean.
Compulsions come in various forms. While hand washing is commonly referred to as an example, many compulsions are unique to each person. One man at the grocery store takes the fourth can of green beans from the front because he feels the others are poisoned. A woman believes her coffee maker must be pointing toward the East to help her feel at peace. A teenager wears blue socks only on Fridays because it will bring them good luck over the weekend. This may sound strange, but for the person with OCD it makes perfect sense.
Imagine a person who gets cut off by another driver. The individual feels a sudden desire to tailgate the offender, follow them to a stoplight, then beat them up. The feeling lasts a few minutes, but their rage subsides, and their temper returns to a lower baseline. This is an example of a "normal" urge. Now, maybe this person should seek anger management! But, this isn't a situation of OCD.
Now imagine a person walking in the mall who has a sudden urge to punch a random person in the face. The individual winces at the thought, and feels horrible because acts of violence do not fit their values or past behavior. This is example of an OCD urge.
Some people struggling with OCD feel a sudden urge to jump off high things, such as a cliff or building (like when visiting the Grand Canyon or the Seattle Space Needle). They fear this impulsive feeling--the thought terrifies them--but because the fear is so real it seems like it's coming from their will.
As you see, each of these scenarios represent an unwanted battle inside the person struggling with OCD. But, here's the good news--there is help and healing awaiting for anyone who feels tormented by these oppressive conditions! I have received a lot of healing in this area, and today most of my OCD tendencies are nonexistent. In addition, as a counselor I've help individuals greatly lower their OCD baselines as well.
Please see my article about OCD Tools at a Glance for further insights!