Inside the Mind: Understanding the Compulsions of OCD
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that affects 1-2% of the population worldwide. It is characterized by the persistent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that interfere with daily life. Though OCD can manifest in many different forms, it is typically understood to be a disorder of control – of one’s own thoughts and behaviors – and of intense anxiety.
OCD can be an incredibly isolating disorder, with many individuals experiencing negative stigma and misunderstanding from others who don’t understand its deeper roots. People with OCD often feel the need to perform certain behaviors or rituals in order to alleviate their anxiety and feel in control of their own mind. These compulsions can take many forms, from repetitive hand-washing to checking and rechecking locks or switches, to mental compulsions such as repetitive counting or recitation of specific phrases.
One of the key things to understand about OCD is that it is not a choice. The thoughts and behaviors of OCD are involuntary, and while cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or medication can be helpful in managing symptoms, they are not ever going to completely eliminate the presence of the disorder. OCD can lead to significant distress and impairment in daily life, and it requires serious treatment and understanding.
People with OCD feel driven to perform these compulsions because they believe that if they don’t, something bad will happen – often something catastrophic. For example, someone with OCD may believe that if they don’t perform a certain ritual, someone they love will die; or that if they don’t check that a door is locked ten times before bed, their home will be robbed. These thoughts can be incredibly distressing, and can lead to intense anxiety that only further reinforces the need to perform the compulsive behaviors.
The origins of OCD are not entirely well-understood yet, though there are many theories. One is that it is related to a serotonin imbalance in the brain, as it tends to respond well to SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – a class of antidepressants that affect serotonin levels in the brain. Additionally, there are likely environmental factors at play – like a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect – that can exacerbate OCD symptoms.
Despite its challenges, OCD can be managed with the help of proper treatment – including CBT, exposure and response prevention (ERP), and medication if necessary. Some individuals find that connecting with a support network and finding ways to build coping skills – like mindfulness, self-compassion, or grounding techniques – can be helpful in managing day-to-day symptoms as well.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that people with OCD are not defined by their disorder, and that seeking treatment is a brave and important step towards greater control and relief. OCD may feel isolating or overwhelming, but with the right support and tools, individuals with this disorder can find ways to work towards healing and greater well-being.