It’s called obsessive compulsive disorder, but as its name implies, how disorderly does it have to be, to be considered obsessive or compulsive? We’ve all seen the extreme and sometimes comical cases on TV and in the movies. Sheldon knocks three times in “The Big Bang Theory”. Melvin has to do everything five times in “As Good as It Gets”. Personally, all of my washed clothes and towels have to face folded-side-out in the linen closet. Everyone has these little things that they obsess over, which can make them a little irritated if they’re not done just right. I’m sure you just had at least one or two things come to mind for yourself.
With all the social media memes floating about this decade, everyone seems a bit more on edge compared to pre-2020. And, with the increased awareness of mental health in general (not a bad thing), there have been a lot of questions about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, aka OCD, how to live with it every day, and whether or not it’s something we can manage on our own. Let’s dive in.
What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
The DSM 5 defines OCD as recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced, and because these disturbances are deemed intrusive or inappropriate to the individual having them, they cause anxiety and distress. OCD is often described as, “The most unwanted thought at the most unwanted time,”. However, there is a lot more to it.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness that falls on a spectrum. It’s comprised of obsessions and/or compulsions. The obsession is an urge or repetitive thought/image that persists and can cause anxiety and discomfort. Whereas the compulsions are the actions one takes to help reduce anxiety – typically caused by obsessive thoughts – such as counting, cleaning, or ordering things in particular ways. So, obsession equals cause and compulsion equals effect.
There are five main categories of OCD:
- Checking & Harm – For example, you’re afraid that someone will break in and hurt you or your family, so you check to make sure the door is locked repeatedly before going to bed at night.
- Contamination – We’ve definitely seen an increase in this one in the past few years. This involves obsessive thoughts of germs, disease, or illness, followed by compulsive actions of hand washing, avoiding public places, sanitizing, etc…
- Symmetry & Ordering – For example, you’re highly focused on perfection and organization. The stapler on your desk must be sitting at a perfect right angle with the mouse pad.
- Rumination & Intrusive Thoughts – This subtype doesn’t have to have actions, rather can still be considered obsession with compulsion. For example, obsessing over thoughts of sexual, violent, or religious nature. These are intrusive thoughts that one doesn’t act on but usually have rituals or ways to avoid triggers for these thoughts.
- Hoarding – The most newly recognized type of OCD, hoarding involves collecting items of little value, like newspaper or ketchup packets with the thought of “in case I need it”.
A person with OCD is usually aware that the thoughts and actions don’t make sense, yet they are still compelled by them – they feel uncontrollable. OCD tends to cause a feeling of embarrassment and challenges in performing day-to-day activities – and can sometimes lead to a shame spiral including isolation, depression, and mal-adaptive coping behaviors.
Can You Live a Normal Life with OCD?
The short answer is absolutely. Although the compulsions are typically uncontrollable and the actions do affect your day-to-day activities, that’s not to say that you can’t function and live a normal life with OCD. One of the key questions our therapists at Claibourne encourage clients to ask themselves when they have a ruminating or intrusive thought on which they feel compelled to act is, “If I don’t do that, what’s the worst thing that can happen?” Sure, for someone with OCD, this could take you down a rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios (an area in which those with OCD excel). But with the right skills, it can be taught that the answer to that worst-case scenario question is, more often than not, not really all that terrible.
There can even be strengths found in obsessive compulsive disorder. With the right therapy, we’ve had clients tell us that their OCD has helped them with work and business. It can be an asset when it comes to planning and staying organized. Claibourne Counseling’s own Director of Operation, Chas Karakey, has found ways to harness his OCD to help him keep his calendar organized, network more effectively, and engage in more efficient time management techniques. Another bonus he shared with us is that he cannot miss his three trips to the gym per week. His obsessive compulsions just won’t allow it. That’s not terrible. It is important to note though, that this is a daily practice for Chas, of balancing and checking in with his natural OCD tendencies and his body and mind. He started out at going to the gym six days a week and has found more of a balance at just three.
High Functioning OCD
We mentioned that OCD falls on a spectrum. There’s what we see in the movies, or worse. Then, there’s high-functioning OCD. While high functioning isn’t defined as either mild or moderate, a person is said to have high-functioning OCD when they’re great at hiding their symptoms. These symptoms could be intrusive thoughts, anxious feelings, lack of self-care, inattention to time management, or could even present as other disorders like ADHD.
This could be the over-achieving student who gets straight As and seems to have it all together. Or the mom at your kid’s school who volunteers for everything and has a three-ring binder for every field trip. These individuals are highly organized. They have their color-coordinated calendars. Their inbox is at zero. Their friends lovingly refer to them as “Type-A”. But one hiccup could send them into a spiral of panic. So, they’re constantly on the lookout, constantly checking and double-checking. For these individuals, it’s time to worry when they begin looping. If there’s a thought that they can’t get past and that’s causing their productivity levels to slow down, this could be a signal that getting support could benefit their overall well-being.
How Can I Manage Obsessive Compulsion Disorder on My Own?
We hear people say all the time, “I’m a little OCD.” First, let’s get it out of the way that OCD is not an adjective. Semantics aside, sure we all have intrusive thoughts, all of us. We all even have some compulsive behaviors. But everyone does not meet the criteria to be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
However, it’s worth noting that since 2020, we’ve had a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression according to the World Health Organization. Nearly everyone is living in a more heightened state of hypervigilance than we were a few years ago. This elevated state of awareness can make us feel like we’re obsessing over more thoughts than usual, which can make us feel the compulsion to behave a certain way. It’s part of our bodies’ stress response to living the way we live today, with a 24/7 news cycle, always being connected, and never slowing down. These feelings of constant stress and anxiety are a natural part of being human.
For those who do meet the criteria for an OCD diagnosis, there are a few steps you can take to help manage the symptoms.
- Learn to identify and reduce your stress triggers – I know, much easier said than done. The key here is to be aware of and mindful of when you find yourself looping. If you find yourself ruminating on a thought that you can’t get past, make note of what triggered that thought. You don’t have to have a solution right away. But the next time you find yourself in a position where the trigger is present, you’ll be better prepared.
- Don’t try this alone – We know OCD and maintaining control tend to go hand in hand. So, asking for help can be hard. But allowing those closest to you to lend a hand in managing your stress can go a long way in controlling your OCD symptoms. Ensure that your support system is educated on OCD and how best to support you.
- Exercise – The benefit here is that you can channel those OCD symptoms into something positive for your physical health. Not only does research show that a healthy body correlates with a healthy mind, but staying physically active provides a distraction from intrusive thoughts.
- Relax – Speaking of distraction, now may be a good time to take up that hobby you’ve been thinking of lately. Relaxing doesn’t have to mean going to the spa or sitting still. Although, if that’s your thing, go for it! But, if you’re into something else, the idea is to remain calm, relaxed, and enjoy yourself.
- Unplug – This needs little explanation. It’s the easiest said, but hardest to execute. We get it.
- Therapy – Therapy can be very effective in helping to manage your OCD symptoms. Not only can your therapist walk you through managing stress and anxiety, which can be triggers for OCD symptoms, but your therapist can help you understand other driving forces behind your obsessions and compulsions and help define new ways to tackle them. Exposure therapy in combination with EMDR are both therapeutic modalities that work wonders for OCD symptoms.
Claibourne Counseling Can Help
No matter how you choose to cope with your OCD symptoms, Claibourne Counseling is here to help. Follow us on social media as we share helpful tips on managing your mental health often. Then, if you need us, we’re here for you.