People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have excessive doubts, worries, or superstitions. While most of us experience these problems occasionally, OCD patients’ worries can control their lives. They may cope with common problems by indulging in compulsions that are excessive or do not make logical sense. People with OCD can’t control these obsessions and compulsions. Most of the time, the rituals end up controlling them. The difference is that people with OCD perform their rituals even though doing so interferes with daily life and they find the repetition distressing. OCD affects about 1 percent of U.S. adults, and although most adults with OCD recognize that what they are doing is senseless, some adults and most children may not realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary.
How can you tell if OCD tendencies are symptoms that require professional help? There’s no easy test, as it’s usually a matter of degree, says Jeff Szymanski, PhD, executive director of the International OCD Foundation, a Boston-based advocacy organization. Still, there are certain patterns that may indicate the full-blown disorder.
- Compulsive hand-washing or hand sanitizer use is so prevalent in OCD that “washers” has become a widely accepted category of OCD patient. The urge commonly stems from a fear of germs (the most common obsession seen in OCD), but it also can be rooted in fears of making others sick or of being impure or immoral.
- Overzealous cleaning
- People with OCD who fall into the “washers” category also tend to clean compulsively. As with hand-washing, housecleaning is often a way of easing “germaphobia” or feelings of impurity. Although cleaning can help chase these obsessive thoughts away, the relief does not last, and the urge to clean is often even stronger the next time.
- Checking behavior
- “Checking behaviors”—returning three, four, or even 20 times to make sure the oven is off or the front door is locked—are the most common compulsions associated with OCD, affecting nearly 30 percent of people with the disorder. Checking can be driven by a variety of obsessions, ranging from a fear of getting hurt to deep-seated feelings of irresponsibility.
- Some people with OCD perform tasks according to a certain numeric pattern or count to themselves as they do everyday things (such as climbing stairs). These behaviors may be driven by superstitions. For instance, a belief that the number seven is good may lead someone to feel that they’ll hurt themselves or someone else if they don’t take seven steps at a time.
- People with OCD can take organizing to the level of perfectionism. “It has to feel just right, look just right, be symmetrical, be the right number [of items,” Szymanski says. This fussiness is often driven by obsessions about order and symmetry.
Patients diagnosed with OCD should learn as much as they can about this disorder. They can combine learning about the disorder through reading and talking to others with OCD with regular meetings or with a physician. As health communicators, we can help patients with OCD manage their disorder by being supportive and calm, such as offering compliments when the OCD patient avoids reacting to his or her compulsions. Under no circumstances should a family member be critical or offer negative comments about the patient’s disorder. It is also important to find help on treating obsessive-compulsive disorder for you or a loved one.
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