According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 3.3 million Americans suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The condition is characterized by distressing and intrusive thoughts (obsessions), and/or repetitive, ritualistic behaviors (compulsions). Sufferers may be preoccupied by an irrational fear of dirt or germs so they wash their hands over and over again. Or they may worry so much that they are going to be victims of crime that they repeatedly check to make sure their doors and windows are locked. Even being overly concerned with order and symmetry is a symptom.
But just double-checking to make sure you didn’t leave the stove on or that your doors and windows are locked does not constitute a diagnosis of OCD. It’s only when these thoughts and actions get in the way of your everyday life that you may suffer from the condition.
While we don’t know what triggers it, we do know that it strikes men and women in equal numbers and tends to show itself in childhood. In its most severe forms, it can cripple a person to the point where they have trouble functioning in society and may even stop working.
The good news is that great strides have been made in treating OCD involving Exposure and Response Prevention, the gold standard therapeutic approach. This involves facing one’s fear but resisting the temptation to ritualize it. For instance, if you have a fear of germs, you might be asked to touch a toilet seat but refrain from washing your hands. Though traumatizing at first, over time your anxiety level will wane and, perhaps, even disappear. By combining this with cognitive therapy and, in some cases, medication, we are realizing better outcomes. Including the patient’s family into the process can reap even better results.
Recently, Johns Hopkins researchers identified a genetic marker linked to OCD. If this finding is confirmed, it might prove useful in understanding its origins and help us in treating it.
Jeff Ball, PhD, is Executive Director of PCH Treatment Center (www.PCHTreatment.com) in West Los Angeles, which specializes in intensive and holistic psychological treatment. He is also an Assistant Clinical Professor in the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.