– Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz has confessed she washes her hands many times each day and uses her elbows to push open doors. There are people in this world who take part in equally strange rituals. They save things until their rooms are filled with junk. They check to see that the lights are turned off so many times that it becomes hard to leave the house at all. These are signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a disorder that causes people to perform repetitive, senseless, time-consuming compulsions.

A few common obsessions are:

  • Fear of getting infected by people or things
  • Extreme concern with order, symmetry, or exactness
  • Recurring thoughts or images of a sexual nature
  • Extreme concern with certain sounds, images, words, or numbers.

Some common practices are:

  • Cleaning and grooming behaviors such as washing hands repeatedly
  • Cleaning and arranging items in the house repeatedly
  • Checking locks and light switches repeatedly
  • Counting things again and again

These obsessive and compulsive rituals can occupy many hours each day. Every morning, Shaheen Ali, a 32-year-old mother of three children, cleans the entire house by sweeping and dusting, till sunset. She washes her children more than 20 times a day. Once, her youngest son, just 10 months old, had red boils on his hands due to the harsh carbolic soap she uses on him. Obsessed with cleanliness, Shaheen displays symptoms of the “washer” subtype of OCD by performing such meaningless acts. The other usual categories, or subtypes, an OCD person would fall into are “thinker”, “checker” and “hoarder” (McKay et al, 2004).

The thinker typically has only obsessions or repetitive thoughts without overt compulsive acts. These thoughts revolve around themes such as harm/violence, religious themes, and sex. They may carry out some mental counting or praying in an attempt to decrease anxiety.
Actress Jennifer Lowe Hewitt has an obsession with doors. She finds it tough to fall asleep if any cabinet or closet door is left open.

Checkers are constantly afraid of harmful consequences if they fail to check on something or control an event.
David Beckham, for example is obsessed with more than just football. The world renowned soccer player repeatedly counts the cans of cola in his fridge and he has to make sure they are in even numbers. His wife Victoria Beckham says if there are 3 cans of pepsi, he will throw away one.

Hoarding is characterized by emotional attachment to items. People find they can’t let go of old stuff and find it tough to organize and discard waste. This is one of the most disabling subtypes and hoarders typically report severe anxiety and depression if made to discard things.
Shraddha, a middle aged housewife had been hoarding things since she was married. Her house had cupboards and shelves overflowing with old linen, broken toys, blackened kitchen utensils and several books. If her children attempted to clean any of the useless mess Shraddha would panic and fall ill.

None of these subtypes are mutually exclusive-the person may display characteristics of solely one type or could show signs of all four.

Two percent of the general population worldwide is affected by OCD (Zohar, Chopra et al, 1997). Recent research shows that OCD is a very common condition, occurring in 1 out of 30 people. It can affect all age groups — adults, teenagers and small children too. And like adults, children too are more likely to exhibit compulsive behavior at home rather than outside, in front of strangers.

How do you know it’s OCD?
OCD is easy to spot, but unfortunately not reported! If a family member shows signs of doing things repetitively, you should really watch out for anxiety in the face of denial. If he or she reacts angrily or anxiously bordering on panic, it definitely indicates need for help.

Can OCD be treated?
People with OCD don’t want to have obsessive thoughts nor do they want to engage in time consuming rituals. Most patients realize how senseless their behaviour is, and so do something to overcome it. Cameron Diaz is known to have modified her fears and was quoted saying, “I think I’ve made my peace with it.”

  • A psychiatrist will usually prescribe anti-depressant medication. The medication usually brings brain chemicals to a regular level of functioning and help in long-term prevention of problems.
  • Traditional psychotherapy such Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has a high success rate in treating OCD.
  • Most alternative treatments such as yoga, pranayama, mindfulness meditation as also music and art therapy are very beneficial in dealing with OCD.
  • Social isolation is the worst for OCD – it can aggravate the disorder. So spending quality time with friends and family, and avoiding staying alone is essential for cure.

If treated in time the person can resume a close to normal life. But if left untreated, the disorder can downslide disastrously.

One unfortunate example is Howard Hughes, the American film producer, on whose life the movie “Aviator” is based. One of the wealthiest people in the world, he descended into mental illness and lived reclusively for years. When he died in 1976, he left behind roomfuls of hair cuttings, fingernail clippings and bottled urine. His home with its costly purification systems and elaborately constructed obstacles to the outside world, were proof of the extreme turn that OCD can take as an illness.

Although OCD is assumed to be present in only 2% of the population, several studies as also empirical evidence indicates that it has a far higher rate of occurrence. If the signs and symptoms covered here seem to ring a bell and you can recognize them in a friend or relative it’s necessary to seek help immediately.