Do I Have OCD? Tips for Recognizing Symptoms and Seeking Treatment

How can you tell if your habits and tendencies have evolved to a point where they’re considered a disorder? By exploring what obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is, learning how to identify symptoms, and examining the best potential treatment solutions, you can begin to forge a path to healing and recovery.

 

For Karen, brushing her teeth is a frequent ritual. Eating, drinking, chewing gum, or simply existing for more than an hour or two leaves her desperate to brush. She can practically feel the bacteria and plaque accumulating on her teeth, so she’s compelled to make regular trips to the bathroom sink in order to brush.

Brushing involves a very precise routine that requires three different toothbrushes of varying softness and a very specific type and amount of toothpaste; if she applies it improperly on the first attempt, she must rinse it off and start over. She counts each and every brush stroke because she knows if she doesn’t, she’ll be haunted by an intense, unshakeable anxiety that something is about to go terribly wrong.

Karen doesn’t remember when exactly the ritual started; it formed gradually, over the course of several months. Now, she spends over two hours a day at the sink. It’s starting to cause problems at work, as she spends most of her lunch hour and all of her breaks in the bathroom. It’s taking a physical toll too. Her gums are raw and inflamed from too much brushing, and the enamel on her teeth is starting to wear down. But she just can’t bring herself to stop—she can’t stop thinking about the repulsive plaque and bacteria accumulating unchecked whenever she tries to relax her routine.

If Karen’s story or symptoms sound all too familiar, you may be struggling with the same mental illness—obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

OCD is a potentially serious mental health condition that falls under the umbrella of anxiety disorders. Affecting an estimated 3.3 million Americans, or 1.6% of the population, OCD can have a very dramatic and adverse impact on a person’s health and quality of life.

To understand OCD, you must understand the definition of these two key terms:

  • Obsessions are powerful and recurring thoughts, mental images, urges and anxieties that create mental distress.
  • Compulsions are defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) as “repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought.”

This condition is characterized by a number of symptoms, which can vary in terms of intensity and severity. At its core, OCD involves intrusive thoughts, rituals, and strong compulsions to perform repetitive behaviors. If the individual fails to perform the ritual, intense anxiety and intrusive thoughts arise to the point of being overwhelming and all-consuming. Rituals and compulsions often surround actions such as washing, cleaning, checking, and hoarding.

Some individuals report that they’ve always experienced some degree of obsessive-compulsive symptoms, while others see a very sudden onset. Often, the onset of OCD coincides with some form of trauma or emotional distress. The average age of onset, according to NIMH, is 19 years old. Abuse, trauma, and even streptococcal infection in childhood can increase an individual’s risk of developing OCD.

What are the Most Common OCD Symptoms?

The OCD experience is different for each person, with symptoms and manifestations that are determined by your unique fears, phobias, and anxieties. For instance, an OCD sufferer who is obsessed with cleanliness and avoiding contamination would be horrified by the cluttered and sometimes-unsanitary conditions inside a hoarder’s home—yet hoarding can also be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Mental health practitioners will look for some very precise symptoms when making an OCD diagnosis. These symptoms can include the following:

  • Consuming and intrusive thoughts, mental images, and urges;
  • Repetitive and compulsive checking (i.e., checking to ensure the oven is turned off);
  • Fear of contamination, germs, infection or illness;
  • Fear that something bad will occur if you fail to satisfy a compulsion; and
  • Hoarding and anxiety at the thought of discarding items.

It’s also common to experience anxiety and depression in conjunction with OCD. In fact, many individuals experience anxiety as a very major element of their OCD experience. You could also be experiencing another co-occurring condition such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or addiction. The medical community has also identified a link between obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism spectrum disorders.

What is the Best OCD Treatment?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is commonly treated using psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), exposure and response prevention (EX/RP), and habit reversal training.

Treatment may be performed on an inpatient or outpatient basis, depending upon the severity and nature of the individual’s condition. Psychotherapy focuses on providing the patient with coping mechanisms for handling anxiety and resisting compulsions. Pharmaceutical medications may also be prescribed in conjunction with psychotherapy. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are sometimes—but not always—effective in treating OCD.

People with more severe symptomatology, like Karen, often benefit from the intensive nature of residential treatment. Breaking a habit or changing a totally benign routine while remaining in your normal environment is already very challenging, but it can be especially difficult for OCD sufferers since the disorder makes maintaining regular routines in familiar settings seem not just comforting but necessary. Moving out of your usual environment into a residential setting gives you a chance to break free from the routines which have been restricting your life in order to form new, healthier habits and coping mechanisms.

Residential treatment programs also provide an opportunity to identify and treat any other mental health issues or addictions. It’s not uncommon for an OCD sufferer to also experience anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance abuse/addiction, amongst other issues. By seeking inpatient therapy in a residential setting, you and your medical care professionals can delve deep into the roots of both disorders in order to craft a truly comprehensive treatment program that’s tailored to your needs and gives you the best chance possible to heal, to grow, and to move forward with your life.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs, and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.

Lead image source: Unsplash user Thomas Griesbeck