Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a disorder of the brain and behavior. OCD causes severe anxiety in those affected. OCD involves both obsessions and compulsions that take a lot of time and get in the way of important activities the person values.
Here is one way to think about what having OCD is like:
Imagine that your mind got stuck
on a certain thought or image…
Then this thought or image got replayed in your mind
no matter what you did…
You don’t want these thoughts — it feels like an avalanche…
Along with the thoughts come intense feelings of anxiety…
Anxiety is your brain’s alarm system. When you feel anxious, it feels like you are in danger. Anxiety is an emotion that tells you to respond, react, protect yourself, DO SOMETHING!
On the one hand, you might recognize that the fear doesn’t make sense, doesn’t seem reasonable, yet it still feels very real, intense, and true…
Why would your brain lie?
Why would you have these feelings if they weren’t true? Feelings don’t lie… Do they?
Unfortunately, if you have OCD, they do lie. If you have OCD, the warning system in your brain is not working correctly. Your brain is telling you that you are in danger when you are not.
When scientists compare pictures of the brains of groups of people with OCD, they can see that some areas of the brain are different than the brains of people who don’t have OCD.
Those tortured with OCD are desperately trying to get away from paralyzing, unending anxiety…
What exactly are obsessions and compulsions?
Obsessions are thoughts, images or impulses that occur over and over again and feel outside of the person’s control. Individuals with OCD do not want to have these thoughts and find them disturbing. In most cases, people with OCD realize that these thoughts don’t make any sense. Obsessions are typically accompanied by intense and uncomfortable feelings such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is “just right.” In the context of OCD, obsessions are time consuming and get in the way of important activities the person values. This last part is extremely important to keep in mind as it, in part, determines whether someone has OCD — a psychological disorder — rather than an obsessive personality trait.
Unfortunately, “obsessing” or “being obsessed” are commonly used terms in every day language. These more casual uses of the word means that someone is preoccupied with a topic or an idea or even a person. “Obsessed” in this everyday sense doesn’t involve problems in day-to-day living and even has a pleasurable component to it. You can be “obsessed” with a new song you hear on the radio, but you can still meet your friend for dinner, get ready for bed in a timely way, get to work on time in the morning, etc., despite this obsession. In fact, individuals with OCD have a hard time hearing this usage of “obsession” as it feels as though it diminishes their struggle with OCD symptoms.
Even if the content of the “obsession” is more serious, for example, everyone might have had a thought from time to time about getting sick, or worrying about a loved one’s safety, or wondering if a mistake they made might be catastrophic in some way, that doesn’t mean these obsessions are necessarily symptoms of OCD. While these thoughts look the same as what you would see in OCD, someone without OCD may have these thoughts, be momentarily concerned, and then move on. In fact, research has shown that most people have unwanted “intrusive thoughts” from time to time, but in the context of OCD, these intrusive thoughts come frequently and trigger extreme anxiety that gets in the way of day-to-day functioning.
- Body fluids (examples urine feces)
- Germs/disease (examples herpes HIV)
- Environmental contaminants (examples: asbestos radiation)
- Household chemicals (examples cleaners solvents)
- Fear of acting on an impulse to harm oneself
- Fear of acting on an impulse to harm others
- Fear of violent or horrific images in one’s mind
- Fear of blurting out obscenities or insults
- Fear of stealing things
- Fear of being responsible for something terrible happening (examples: fire burglary)
- Fear of harming others because of not being careful enough (example: dropping something on the ground that might cause someone to slip and hurt him/herself)
Unwanted Sexual Thoughts
- Forbidden or perverse sexual thoughts or images
- Forbidden or perverse sexual impulses about others
- Obsessions about homosexuality
- Sexual obsessions that involve children or incest
- Obsessions about aggressive sexual behavior towards others
Religious Obsessions (Scrupulosity)
- Concern with offending God, or concern about blasphemy
- Excessive concern with right/wrong or morality
- Concern with getting a physical illness or disease (not by contamination, e.g. cancer)
- Superstitious ideas about lucky/unlucky numbers certain colors
Source: International OCD Foundation
Source: National Film Board (NFB), Canada (Youtube)