A personal insight into the disorder by Lloyd Evans.
OBSESSIVE Compulsive Disorder is a neurological condition that affects people’s behaviours and emotions. It can be classed as both a mental illness and as neurodivergence, as it changes the way the brain functions.
The disorder is broken into two parts; Obsessions, which are unwanted intrusive thoughts and phobias, and compulsions, which are ritualistic behaviours to help soothe or neutralise the obsession.
It is estimated that 1.2% of the general population suffer from OCD in the United Kingdom. This may seem like a small group but it still affects around 746,740 people.
Due to stigma and misrepresentation, many people may not know they suffer from the disorder and are unaware of any help they may need. Many people just assume it’s the desire to be neat and organised. However, it is so much more than that- it can present life altering challenges, consuming individuals with a sea of emotions, as well as rituals and routine behaviours which can take up large parts of the day.
OCD can present itself in many ways. An obsession could be an image, thought, or urge. It can make you feel repulsed, disturbed, anxious, and guilty. Compulsions may be mental or physical rituals; actions (such as hand washing), thinking (counterbalancing the bad thought), repetition or checking things (checking the locks and windows a certain number of times etc.), or simply seeking reassurance (asking for validation/proof you haven’t acted on said thoughts).
As someone who has recently found out they do suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, after many years of suffering unaware, it is my goal to raise awareness for those like me, and to help reduce the stigma and educate others.
Recently I have begun to take steps to improve my mental health. This started with me ringing my GP, I told him I wanted my antidepressants increased, and that I was now struggling with intrusive thoughts and panic attacks alongside my usual anxiety.
I have been referred for some CBT therapy (cognitive behavioural therapy) and passed over to a mental health team. I’ve joined an online support group through Triumph Over Phobia, and attend weekly zoom meetings to gain some interim support.
Knowing that there are other people who experience the same things I do is extremely reassuring.Being alone with your thoughts can leave you feeling isolated- worried you’re ‘crazy’, or somehow a bad person. These are not thoughts you can control, but you do have the power to control how you respond to them; this means learning to cope with them and hopefully getting them to subside.
There is a fine balance between ignoring your thoughts completely, processing them properly, and allowing your thoughts to ruminate.
I am currently learning to process them properly. I used to ruminate on certain thoughts in an attempt to neutralise them or argue with myself. This behaviour gives a temporary release, but it feeds your brain that these thoughts will stimulate you and provide a response. By learning to acknowledge and then ignore them, or by undergoing exposure therapy, you’re able to train your brain into no longer eliciting a response to that thought, and it should eventually stop.
Personally, I suffer from several phobias and intrusive thoughts. I see these as an extension of my stress and anxiety. If I’m presented with a particularly stressful situation in my life or a relationship, I may develop an obsession surrounding that issue.
Without going into too much detail, while having relationship issues, I suffered from intrusive thoughts and images about being unfaithful to my partner, which then led to me becoming sleep deprived as they would keep me up throughout the night.
Another example would be my contamination/germ phobia surrounding dirty water. I could not touch a damp cloth or use a toilet and sink without spitting and washing my hands until it ‘felt right’- all because my brain decided the unclean water was the same as the saliva in my mouth. Which sounds almost ridiculous in writing, but it affects me every single day.
As part of my group ‘homework’ each week, I attempt some exposure or challenge my compulsions. For my emotional obsessions, I try saying my thoughts out loud or write them down, in a hope to acknowledge and then desensitise them. For the more physical ones, I try to make a conscious effort to delay or alter my behaviour.
The point I’m trying to make is that these issues can affect anyone, and they take place in so many different ways. We are not bad people; we end up judging ourselves so all we look for is acceptance and compassion. There is help available, whether professional or self-help, you are not alone and you are more than your thoughts and fears.
There are many wonderful resources and communities online. Below are some websites to explore if you or someone you know may be affected by the condition, or to find out more.
Feature photo: Beach view by Jack Feasby