Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an illness that has been ranked by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of the most debilitating illnesses of any type when taking in factors such as the loss of quality of life and reduction of income. Based on current estimates, OCD affects roughly 12 in every 1000 people in the UK, ranging from children to adults and from mild to severe cases. Unfortunately, according to mental health charity OCD UK, over 50% of diagnosed cases fall into the severe category.
It is a serious and often distressing condition with clearly damaging consequences, but what is exactly is it? We tell you everything you need to know about the condition.
The condition is an anxiety disorder with two main characteristics:
- People who have OCD experience intrusive thoughts repeatedly. These obsessional thoughts can take shape through a myriad of ways: these include anything from worries, doubts, urges or even images. The frequency of them causes the person to feel extreme discomfort and lead them to feel very anxious.
- These obsessions can then often lead to engaging in compulsive behaviour, impulses, urges or activities as a means of attempting to alleviate the troubling thoughts. Examples include repeating a word or phrase repeatedly in your head, or checking if the windows or doors are locked several times before leaving your home.
What is it like to live with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
People who suffer from the condition can find that it has a severe impact on getting on with their life and daily activities.
- Obsessive thoughts or repeating compulsions are mentally time-consuming, meaning that it can make it difficult for you to concentrate on work, or leave you feeling completely emotionally drained and unable to complete tasks adequately or on time.
- The need to repeat compulsions or urges can make the sufferer more anxious, often about the need to repeat compulsions itself meaning they may choose to avoid certain situations and lead the person to isolate themselves.
- OCD can have a detrimental effect on their relationships with friends or family. Some may feel guilty or even ashamed of their obsessive thoughts and try to hide them and therefore feel unable to talk about the condition. This can lead an OCD sufferer to not only physically isolate themselves, but they mentally may feel very alone too, that is why the condition is often referred to as the ‘secret illness’.
- The sufferer may live in a state of perpetual fear, as obsessive thoughts and compulsions can often relate to trying to prevent something terrible happening to a loved one.
- It may be a mental health condition, but that doesn’t mean that OCD can’t take its toll on your physical health. The anxiety and stress brought on by the disorder can manifest itself into physical symptoms.
Why does the anxiety disorder affect some but not others? One definite reason why remains unknown, however, there are thought to be other factors attributed to the illness such as:
- Traumatic, stressful or important life events. This could be abuse or neglect, bullying, bereavement or childbirth.
- The type of personality you have. It is thought that those who are generally more anxious in nature or who would be deemed as ‘perfectionists’, (that is neat and methodical) in personality type may be more likely to suffer from it.
- If other members of your family have OCD, it is thought that it is more likely that you will develop the condition.
- OCD may develop as a result of low levels of the chemical serotonin in their body, or conversely, it is thought that extremely high levels of serotonin in the brain can lead to it.
Paradoxically, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder often does not improve without the aid of seeking proper treatment and support, but the condition can lead people to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their condition and therefore not seek help. But there is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. Whilst OCD is a chronic illness, it is also very treatable, and there are different ways you can seek treatment.
You can either visit your GP to speak about your symptoms and if diagnosed, refer you to a psychological therapy service. You also have the option of making a self-referral to a local psychological service. The NHS website allows you to type in your postcode or town and search for services closest to you in which you can do this.
Once you have taken the brave first step and either visited your GP or made a self-referral and a diagnosis has been made, some of the main treatments for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder include:
- Medication, normally a type called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), these are a form of antidepressant that is known to help address chemical imbalances in the brain. Whilst most who are prescribed these SSRIs for OCD find it effective, noticing the benefits can sometimes take months.
- Psychological therapy may also be recommended for the condition. This often takes the form of a special type of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which involve behavioural exercises that help you address obsessive thoughts and compulsion in a positive way by helping you unlearn compulsive rituals. This is in addition to the severity and intensity of their obsessional thoughts. Compared to SSRIs, those with OCD have reported that therapy has had a quicker result.
- You may also be referred to a support group in addition to medical help, or similarly, you may choose to get in contact with a support group on your own. As we have previously mentioned, living with OCD can be an isolating experience for many, so being in touch with others who have the condition could be helpful, as well as potentially offering useful information and advice too.
- Websites such as OCD-UK, TOP UK, and OCD Action can lead you in the right direction regarding where your nearest support group is.