Understanding OCD and how to overcome

By Jessica Tett, I guess we've all heard of OCD, and know it means Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Maybe we think of someone who washes their hands until they are raw, or someone who checks their doors and windows are locked over and over late into the night. OCD can be these things, and it can also be a really wide range of other things.

What is OCD:

Having OCD means that you experience frequent obsessive thoughts and carry out compulsive behaviours in order to stop these thoughts. The obsessive part refers to unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, images or urges that repeatedly enter your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease. They interrupt your thoughts against your control, and can be really frightening, graphic and disturbing. The compulsive part refers to repetitive behaviours or mental acts that you feel you need to do to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought. Repeating compulsions is often very time-consuming and the relief they give you doesn't usually last very long.

OCD can be very isolating: you feel you have to spend a lot of time on the compulsive behaviours, and you perhaps avoid situations because you know they'll set off the obsessive thoughts. You might feel you have to hide these behaviours and not want anyone to know what's going on. All this could lead to feeling trapped and isolated, and anxious and/or depressed. You might feel hopeless, and unable to make any changes or see any changes being possible.

Different kinds of OCD:

Understanding what OCD means helps us see that these obsessions and compulsions might be anything – not just hand washing – and it is the over-whelming repetition of the obsessive thoughts and compulsive acts that is important, rather than what these thoughts or actions actually are. Remember that it's not unusual to experience minor obsessions and compulsions, but normally these don't interfere with our daily life. I might occasionally worry that I haven't locked the front door, but I probably won't get out of bed specifically to check that I have locked it. Typical OCD symptoms (obsessions and compulsions) might fall into one or more of these categories: contamination – around a fear of exposure to germs, dirt or bacteria; hoarding – around keeping or acquiring items that might be needed; order – around counting or touching, or arranging things in the right way; taboo thoughts and obsessions – the Channel Four series ‘Pure’ addresses this; and checking – around constant and never-ending doubts.

Why might it be worse this year?

There's no one clear cause of OCD: instead research suggests “that OCD likely is the result of a combination of neurobiological, genetic, behavioural, cognitive, and environmental factors that trigger the disorder in a specific individual at a particular point in time.”( It's never your fault, and some theories suggest that the obsessions and compulsions are ways of trying to manage what feel like dangerous situations. Your brain is trying to help you, but the way it is doing this is really not helpful. Remembering this might help you be kinder to yourself: instead of feeling angry and ashamed at having OCD, reassure yourself softly that your brain is trying to do the right thing, and just needs some guidance and help to get back on the right track.

This year has been a bumper year for OCD: people are reporting an increase in intrusive thoughts about contamination and germs, all-consuming worries about passing the virus on to others, and a general increase in health anxiety and worries about being vulnerable. The economic uncertainty we now face, and the ever-changing rules about covid is also difficult. To be honest, we have all probably had more worries over the last 6 months. Someone with OCD might be finding that these thoughts and worries are not fleeting, rather they are dominating your thoughts, and the behaviours resulting from the thoughts might be becoming harmful, and interfering with you enjoying your daily life.

If that sounds familiar to you, and you think you might have OCD caused by or exacerbated by covid, here are some useful coping strategies:

What can you do about it if you have it?

If you have got OCD, there are definitely things you can do that will work. Tell your GP, she might be able to refer you to a local psychological therapy service for CBT or another Talking Therapy. Exploring what is going on, plus learning some strategies will often have an effect quite quickly. Your GP might also suggest medication, like an SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressant. This might take longer to work, but most people eventually benefit. There is a lot of online support, and a number of charities run by people with OCD so you can educate yourself, and hear from other people who might feel like you.

How can you help a friend/colleague?

It’s likely that your friend/colleague will do everything they can to hide their OCD from you, so it can be difficult to recognise. But if you think a friend or colleague or relative is experiencing OCD, talk to them about it, and suggest they get some help. If you know a little bit more about OCD, this might help you be able to raise the subject, and remember to always reassure your friend that it's not their fault – I know you'd do that anyway!

Useful links

There are links here to support groups – both national and local.

This organisation has lots of information about treatments and strategies.

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