What is OCD?
OCD is a common mental health condition affecting approximately 2–3% of the population. Most people have heard the abbreviation thrown around, however, few know what the word actually means and how this condition can be truly debilitating for the sufferer, both internally and externally. So, what is OCD? OCD stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
The sufferer may experience intrusive thoughts/feelings/urges and due to the high levels of anxiety feels the need to carry out compulsions as a way to ‘control’ the thoughts and reduce the anxiety. The compulsions temporarily relieve the anxiety but like an addiction leads to the sufferer constantly relying on compulsions and needing to do more and more. This ineffective way of coping with anxiety results in more thoughts, more compulsions, and of course, more anxiety. It is often described as a vicious cycle.
The Effects of Trivialising OCD
Firstly, I want to start off by saying how OCD is more than just cleaning or wanting things a certain way. This is a common misconception and has led to the phrase ‘I’m so OCD’ thrown around on a regular basis. The use of OCD as an adjective is harmful as many individuals who have this condition go undiagnosed for large parts of their life.
I was diagnosed at 18, but looking back to my early years I definitely had OCD from the age of 7. For some people, they live with this condition for half their life and suffer in silence before they find out there is a term for what they’re going through, a real diagnosis. I appreciate that many people do not intend to cause harm by using OCD as a throw-away comment but unfortunately it trivialises a mental health condition that can lead to depression and in extreme cases take lives.
How can OCD be an internal battle?
OCD can be both an internal and external battle. In this post, I want to highlight how it can be an internal battle as this is often unspoken about. This condition can be very much internal, I’ve struggled with OCD most of my life yet very few people know I have OCD and even fewer people would be able to tell. This is because most of the compulsions that I carry out are internal. For example, let’s start with an intrusive thought — a horrible thought enters my mind — perhaps an image of someone I love dying. The anxiety levels spike and I begin to feel uncontrollable levels of intense anxiety.
Immediately, I start to try and think of ‘good thoughts’ in order to ‘cancel’ out the bad thoughts. This may involve repeating a few words over and over again in my mind. I may also try to force the thought out of my head by focusing on a ‘good image’ like a river or something completely unrelated. Momentarily, my anxiety levels come down a bit and I start to feel normal. Until the thought returns again and naturally as the compulsion helped before I do it again.
The more I do the compulsions, the more I am telling my brain there is something to be scared of. This keeps the monster alive. So the cycle carries on. All the while I am having this internal struggle, people around me may try to engage in conversations with me or not notice anything wrong apart from the fact that I appear a little out of it or distracted. Most of the time, no one notices at all. I dealt with this as so many OCD sufferers do, without telling a soul. I believed that every single thought and image I had in my head was a reflection of me, even when it was completely unwanted and intrusive.
I later learned that intrusive thoughts are very common, a study from the ’70s showed that 70% of the general population experience intrusive thoughts often of a very similar nature to people with OCD. The difference, however, lies in the way we react to the thoughts. A person without OCD would generally be able to dismiss such bizarre thoughts whereas someone with OCD becomes fixated, consumed, and obsessed by the thoughts.
When I found out I had OCD, everything made sense. My childhood and obsessive hand-washing at 7 all became clear to me. It was almost as if it was obvious! However, I thought OCD was just about hand-washing or being particular because that’s what I had learned. So it took me several years to seek professional help and see my GP. Thankfully, they were able to help and guide me to an OCD specialist. However, so many people are struggling with this internal battle with no idea that they have OCD.
Finally, if you have read this far — thank you. The purpose of this post was to bring awareness to how OCD is as much an internal struggle as an external one. There is much more I can say about this disorder — after 23 years I’d like to think I finally understand it pretty well (at least, from my own experience).
So, to end I want to leave you with a thought: ‘how can I help?’. A friend or family member very close to you may be suffering from this internal battle too, the best way to help is to show your support and try your best to pick your words carefully when speaking about mental disorders to avoid trivialising a truly horrible condition. This would likely make the sufferer feel more comfortable opening up too if the condition was taken more seriously.
If the person reading this, has OCD, then I can only say I hope you find peace in the chaos and know you are not alone; even in your darkest thoughts.