Living with OCD: What It’s Actually Like
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental illness that is frequently undermined by the common mythsthat it’s nothing more than the product of high-strung individuals with a tendency for perfectionism and cleanliness. Understanding that these myths are misguided and revealing the true nature of this disorder is essential to help those suffering from it break the cycle of obsessions and compulsions that it creates and live a better life.
Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can trap the negative, obsessive thoughts in your head into an endless cycle. Common perceptions of OCD tend to focus on the stereotype of having to be organized, but in reality this does nothing but undermine the true nature of the disorder and the toll that it takes on those suffering from it.
“Picture standing in a room filled with flies and pouring a bottle of syrup over yourself,” said Cheryl Little Sutton, who suffers from OCD. “The flies constantly swarm about you, buzzing around your head and in your face. You swat and swat, but they keep coming. The flies are like obsessional thoughts—you can’t stop them, you just have to fend them off. The swatting is like compulsions—you can’t resist the urge to do it, even though you know it won’t really keep the flies at bay more than for a brief moment.”
In order to give those suffering from OCD incentive to seek treatment, we must shed light on what it’s actually like to live with the debilitating disorder and promote an understanding of how it can shape the experiences of those affected by it and the people in their lives.
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Myth: People with OCD Just Need to Relax
Asserting that people with OCD just need to relax implies that it is purely a disorder rooted in stress. Although stressful situations can increase symptoms in individuals suffering from OCD, stress is not the sole cause of the disorder. In fact, OCD is a complex illness that has root causes at both the behavioral and biological levels.
In terms of behavior, many researchers believed that OCD arises from obsessions that stem from a neutral object becoming connected to a fearful stimulus. For example, a piece of chalk becomes associated with fear after having a panic attack while writing on the chalkboard. After this initial connection, compulsions develop to reduce the anxiety created in response to the stimulus connected to fear. These compulsions reinforce that reaction and create the vicious cycle of fear and habit that underlie OCD, a cycle which is subconscious and tied to abnormal brain activity, leaving individuals with no control over the obsessions and compulsions that dominate their life.
At the biological level, research suggests that OCD stems from abnormal activity in the caudate nucleus, a region of the brain’s basal ganglia. In order for a person to properly control their habits, this structure must fire in a specific manner. One study found that people with OCD possess hyperactivation in this region of the brain compared to those that do not, highlighting the contribution of underlying brain biology to the symptoms of this disorder.
Myth: Compulsions Are Always Physical Actions
Contrary to what you might think, when you suffer from OCD, obsessive thoughts can lead to compulsions that manifest in both physical and mental ways. Religious obsessions about always doing the morally right thing can lead to mentally compulsive thoughts of prayer to balance out these compulsions, and obsessive feelings of fear can lead to constantly reviewing the possible events of your day to ensure that they don’t lead to harm. You might know someone who suffers from OCD and not even realize it because their compulsions never manifest in a physical way; instead, these compulsions make their way through the person’s thought processes and go completely unnoticed to the outside world.
Myth: It’s All About Cleanliness and Organization
Although the common perception of someone with OCD is one dominated by cleanliness and organization, OCD is a complex disorder that spans far beyond these actions. Cleanliness and perfectionism are common obsessions, but numerous others including unwanted sexual thoughts, religious obsessions, and fear of losing control of your actions also exist. For example, someone with the obsession of unwanted sexual thoughts might compulsively avoid specific situations that trigger these thoughts. Ultimately, OCD is a connection between intrusive, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that attempt to control the anxiety that stems from these thoughts. The nature of the disorder spans far beyond simply being preoccupied with cleanliness and organization.
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Myth: It Affects Women More Than Men
Possibly due to the aforementioned myth that OCD is all about cleanliness and keeping things organized—behaviors commonly associated with females—many people assume that OCD is a disorder that affects women more than men. However, the International OCD Foundation states that OCD affects people of all genders, races, and economic backgrounds equally. Perpetuating this myth does nothing but undermine the severity of OCD in men and could prevent many of them from seeking treatment due to the misguided belief that OCD is not likely to affect them. In addition, it stigmatizes the women who suffer from it by feeding into the myth that the disorder is limited to an obsession with cleanliness and organization.
Breaking the Cycle
Experiencing the world through the lens of OCD can consume your energy and prevent you from focusing on the positive thoughts and experiences that are overwhelmed by your obsessions and compulsions. Understanding that what you are feeling is not simply something that can be solved by “relaxing” is the first step toward realizing that you need treatment and that this treatment is available to you.
Through a combination of psychotherapy and holistic therapies, you can end the cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions that feed your anxiety and leave you trapped in negative rumination. Under the proper guidance, you will learn to take control of your intrusive thoughts and gain the tools needed to replace your compulsions with healthy coping skills. You don’t have to accept that the cycle of OCD will always control your life—with the proper techniques, you can heal your mind and transform your thoughts into positive ones conducive to a healthy life.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for individuals suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as other co-occurring mental health disorders, substance abuse, and process addictions. Contact us to learn how you or your loved ones can break free from the cycle of negative thoughts and compulsions and replace them with positive coping mechanisms.
Lead Image Source: Unsplash user David Marcu