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What is OCD?

Kaitlin Broderick LCPC  

OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has become a term that is tossed around lightly. You probably have heard people say, “I’m so organized and like to keep things in perfect order, I have ocd” or maybe you have said this yourself. It is a common misconception that just because one values cleanliness and order this makes them have OCD. Liking things a certain way and being detail-oriented doesn’t mean you have the disorder. The actual disorder can be extremely debilitating and has a significant effect on one’s ability to function normally on a day to day basis. It is characterized by unwanted intrusive thoughts followed by a compulsion or response to these thoughts. For example, someone might have constant intrusive thoughts that an intruder is going to break into their home. The compulsion might be repeatedly making sure all windows and doors are locked. Checking the locks may provide temporary relief from the anxiety of the thoughts, but with OCD the obsessive thoughts come back and the whole process repeats itself. Doubting oneself is also a characteristic of this disorder. For example, you may have just locked the door, yet a feeling of doubt overwhelms you and you begin to think maybe you didn’t lock the door correctly. 

Those that suffer from OCD believe that the compulsive act will prevent something bad from happening to them. They have heightened anxiety around whatever they fear happening (an intruder breaking in, getting a disease) and are seeking some form of safety through their compulsions. Sometimes OCD can manifest after something traumatic happens (for example, getting into a car accident or having someone break into the home), but this isn’t always the case and sometimes the fears can manifest seemingly out of nowhere. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT is one treatment that has been found to be particularly beneficial with OCD. CBT operates from the premise that you don’t have control over what thoughts come into your head, but you do have control over how you respond to these thoughts. In CBT, people can learn to challenge their irrational thoughts and substitute them for more rational thinking. Insight into the irrationality of the obsessive thoughts can vary from person to person with some having more insight than others. 

Another helpful component of treating OCD is to build space or time between the irrational thought and the compulsion. The idea is to gradually increase the time between the thought and compulsion until the realization comes that the compulsive behavior is not necessary in order to be safe. To go back to the obsessive thought about the intruder for example, the longer a person can keep themselves from making sure the doors and windows are locked, and still see that they are safe and there is no intruder, the more they can begin to realize that they don’t need the compulsion to keep them safe. This can be difficult at first to build space between the thought and the compulsion, but with mindfulness and deep breathing, one can learn to sit through the uncomfortable feeling until it becomes easier. Part of the treatment of OCD can also be learning to alleviate some of the overall responsibility of being in control, and learning to accept that there are things that happen in life that are out of your own personal power. Medications can also sometimes be beneficial in treating OCD. 

OCD is very difficult to treat on one’s own and if this is something you are struggling with, it is absolutely necessary to seek treatment and get help with it. This is not something that should be self-diagnosed or self-treated. Sometimes people struggling with this disorder can feel alone or even shameful about it, but you are not alone and treatment is possible. If you’re struggling with OCD, talk to one of our skilled therapists at Symmetry Counseling today. We offer in-person and online counseling in Chicago.

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