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Dr Anne Perry

This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Anne Perry (MBBS, MRCPsych), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Ticehurst House, in January 2022.

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a serious mental health condition that causes individuals to experience a variety of symptoms that typically fall into one of two categories: ‘obsessions’ and/or ‘compulsions’.

Obsessions are characterised by persistent and irrational thoughts or urges, and compulsions refer to physical or mental acts that individuals feel compelled to perform. Some individuals who develop OCD only experience one type of symptom, whilst others can experience both obsessions and compulsions. These irrational thoughts and behaviours can become extremely time consuming and can seem impossible to stop or control.

Spotting the Signs of OCD

Sometimes, the signs of OCD are not always obvious. You may find yourself taking a step back from socialising, starting to become more conscious of cleanliness, or losing concentration, without realising that you could be suffering from OCD.

If these symptoms are left to develop, they could become more serious and start to develop into obsessions or compulsions.

Dr Paul McLaren, Consultant Psychiatrist, explains why people get obsessions and compulsions:

"Obsessions are persistent and irrational thoughts or urges, and compulsions refer to physical or mental acts that individuals feel compelled to perform”

Dr McLaren says there's no definitive reason why someone may develop compulsions or obsessions, "but a range of factors - or combination of factors - include neurobiological, genetic, or specific events that trigger the disorder in a specific individual at a particular point in time”.

Read more about why OCD is on the rise.

What are the Symptoms of OCD?

OCD symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone will experience them all. Some may only experience one type of symptom, whilst others experience both.

OCD obsessions include:

  • Overwhelming fear of germs or contamination
  • Recurring involuntary thoughts that you might say something inappropriate or harm another person
  • Constant worry that you forgot to lock a door or turn off an appliance
  • Experiencing intrusive sexual thoughts or constantly questioning your sexuality
  • Fearing that something bad will happen if you throw anything away, or a fear of losing things that you might need
  • Worrying that you have a serious disease despite medical reassurances
  • An obsession with order and symmetry, and being highly superstitious in relation to certain numbers, arrangements or colours
  • An obsession with causing accident, injury, harm, danger or misfortune to yourself and others

OCD compulsions include:

  • Repeating ritualistic actions to a set number of times or for a certain amount of time e.g. turning a light switch on and off
  • Washing your hands or bathing multiple times each day, regardless of need
  • Only touching certain objects with a tissue or avoiding objects that may be contaminated
  • Continually counting or repeating certain words over and over again
  • Repeatedly seeking reassurance from other people
  • Excessive praying or other religious rituals
  • Hoarding or collecting items that you don’t need or use

The most common form of obsessive compulsive disorder is related to hygiene and contamination. This form of obsession causes the sufferer to develop an intense and irrational fear of germs, dirt and disease, resulting in them compulsively washing themselves or objects more than usual, only touching things with a tissue, and avoiding items that may be contaminated.

OCD and Intrusive Thoughts

For someone struggling with an OCD, intrusive thoughts can also be a symptom. Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts and feelings towards a range of different scenarios. They can cause extreme worry, followed by compulsions, which can be mental or physical.

Often, these intrusive thoughts quickly appear and disappear, and leave no lasting impression. But for someone with obsessive compulsive disorder, they can linger and occur time and time again, leading to a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Examples of intrusive thoughts include:

  • Violence – thoughts about harming themselves or others
  • Religion – thoughts that are against their religious beliefs
  • Relationships – thoughts about the strength of their relationship
  • Sex – thoughts about sexuality or sexual harm

For anyone who is having intrusive thoughts, it is important to remember that these thoughts are normal. Everyone experiences them.

However, if they are frequent, incredibly overwhelming and you find yourself carrying out compulsions in an attempt to cope, you may need professional support in order to overcome the challenges they are causing you.

'A day in the life' - Mary explains living with OCD

Mary's OCD obsessions and compulsions are slowly taking over her life. She explains that even getting ready in the morning is a huge challenge.

After showering, she must stare at the shower-head with a deep concentration to ensure it is switched off and repeats the words “check, check, check”.

When she brushes her teeth, she must turns both taps in the off direction and places her hands under both taps to feel there is no water running, repeating the words “check, check, check”. Mary stares at the taps intensely to be sure that the water is definitely switched off.

She then gets a roll of kitchen towel (she goes through four rolls a day), and starts by wiping over the shower door to remove any drops of water. 

Read more about Mary's OCD story here

OCD and Related Conditions

Unfortunately, OCD can have quite an impact on your mental health and wellbeing. As well as experiencing symptoms of OCD, the condition can also induce other mental health conditions such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Paranoia

Alongside these, you may also experience trouble socialising, self-esteem, appetite changes, and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. OCD and guilt are often linked too, as you can feel guilty for your obsessions, compulsions, and changing mental health. Not everybody will experience these challenges whilst having OCD, but they can be noticed during an OCD diagnosis assessment.

OCD Treatment

If you are looking into treatment for OCD and intrusive thoughts, some of the common options include the below:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – CBT is a treatment programme that is commonly used to help people struggling with OCD. It gives you an opportunity to discover ways to process and respond to intrusive thoughts differently, so that they have less of an impact on you

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) – often used within CBT for OCD, this involves taking carefully controlled steps where you are slowly and safely exposed to your worries and intrusive thoughts. You work with your therapist to avoid carrying out the accompanying compulsive behaviours, with the aim of breaking the cycle of having obsessions and carrying out compulsions. At Priory Group, ERP is an important part of the CBT programme that we have for OCD

Medication – certain medication can be prescribed for OCD symptoms, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Your psychiatrist will be able to work with you to determine if medication is appropriate for your needs

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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