We ask Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind and Vitality’s Medical Affairs Director, GP Dr Dawn Richards, to tell us some key facts and common misconceptions about OCD.
OCD is the fourth most common mental disorder in many Western countries, yet it’s one of the most commonly misunderstood. “Not everyone with OCD has the compulsion to open and close drawers and switch lights on and off,” says Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind. “It’s a serious anxiety disorder that can have a detrimental impact on everyday life.”
Here, we ask the experts what exactly OCD is and how to help yourself or anyone else with the disorder.
What is OCD?
“OCD is an anxiety disorder that consists of obsessions and compulsions,” explains Buckley. “Obsessions are recurring unwelcome thoughts, images, urges, worries or doubts that can make you anxious or uncomfortable. Compulsions are repetitive actions to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession. These could include repeatedly checking whether a door is locked, repeating a phrase to yourself or checking how your body feels.”
What are the common habits or thoughts associated with OCD?
Buckley and Dr Richards say that a fear of causing harm, fear of contamination, hoarding or a preference for symmetrical order are common OCD traits. Unwanted sexual or religious thoughts are also common.
What are the misconceptions about OCD?
“It isn’t helpful for people without a diagnosis to refer to themselves as being ‘a bit OCD’ or to use this term just because they enjoy cleaning, as it trivialises the condition,” says Buckley.
“OCD can be lonely, frightening, embarrassing or shameful. People experiencing OCD will be constantly deliberating whether something is safe or right. Some people think it just means you wash your hands a lot or you like things to be tidy. They might even make jokes about it. But it’s about having no control over your negative thoughts and being afraid that doing things a certain way will cause harm.”
How can you tell the difference between strange or impulsive habits and a genuine disorder?
“Many people have minor obsessions about whether they’ve left the oven on or forgotten to lock the front door. Or they might have compulsions such as avoiding the cracks in the pavement. But these tend to be short-lived and don’t significantly interfere with their daily life,” says Buckley.
“When a person isn’t able to do this and becomes anxious or develops rituals or actions to cope with the thoughts, they may have OCD,” says Dr Richards.
How do we diagnose OCD?
If you suspect that you might have some symptoms of OCD, Dr Richards suggests using a self-diagnosis aid. It’s a useful tool for understanding more about how you’re feeling and whether your symptoms may be related to OCD.
If you’re concerned about your mental health in any way, see your GP. If your GP thinks you may have OCD they will refer you to a psychiatrist (or other mental health professional) for an assessment.
“Read Mind’s ‘Find the Words’ guide, which gives advice on how to speak to your GP about mental health for the first time,” suggests Buckley.
Can you cure OCD?
“Most people who get the right treatment see a significant improvement in their OCD,” says Buckley. “A combination of talking therapies, medication and other self-management techniques such as regular exercise, a balanced diet and a strong network of family and friends is often the best way to manage it.”
How can I help someone with OCD?
“If someone you know is experiencing OCD, it can help to acknowledge it. Encourage them to talk about their experience in a way that feels comfortable,” suggests Buckley.
- Be patient. Remember that their fears are very real to them, even if they seem unrealistic, irrational or extreme to you.
- Stay calm and don’t judge. It can be upsetting to hear about some obsessive thoughts. Make it clear that you love and support them regardless.
- Find out as much as you can about OCD. This will help you understand what your loved one is going through.
- Help them to access treatment.
For more information about OCD, self-care tips and treatments, visit Mind or call the Infoline on 0300 123 3393.
Want to learn more? Read our guide to anxiety disorders with psychotherapist Brendan Street.
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