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Understanding and Coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in a Chaotic World

Letters spell out OCD
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Some mental health challenges seem to get more airtime than others, and OCD seems to be one of those. OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is a condition characterized by a persistent, unwanted, and distressing thoughts, images or urges, and the urge to engage in repetitive behaviours or acts in response. These compulsions are often performed to reduce anxiety or prevent a feared event, but can interfere with daily life and can cause considerable distress. It's common too, globally affecting between 1-2% of the population, and most commonly emerging in childhood or adolescence. The strength of symptoms can vary from mild to life altering.

The thoughts or images that power OCD can vary, but commonly themes include contamination (e.g. germs or cleanliness), harm (to self or others) or perfectionism. The related compulsions can include physical rituals, for example handwashing or checking, or mental rituals, for example counting or repeating phrases. Now, almost all of us can experience occasional unwanted thoughts or engage in rituals or repetitive behaviour, but the key to OCD is the distress it causes the individual and how much it interferes with their lives. People can feel out of control with their OCD, which can in turn exacerbate the symptoms. As researcher named John Marr wrote in a seminal paper "“Although OCD may have originated in early experiences, it appears to be a self-maintaining disorder" (Marr, 2012).

There are a variety of recommended and evidence based treatment options for OCD. CBT therapy uses Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) in which controlled exposure helps individuals confront their anxiety provoking thoughts and learn that they will gradually reduce over time without acting upon them. It is highly effective, with many people experiencing a significant reduction in symptoms. ACT can be effective in helping individuals with OCD accept their thoughts without trying to eliminate them and focus on living a fulfilling life in line with their values. It may be particularly useful for individuals who struggle with the distress and avoidance behaviours associated with their OCD. EMDR has also emerged as a effective treatment; EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to process disturbing thoughts or memories and reduce their emotional impact. It is particularly effective for individuals who may have experienced trauma related triggers, or have a history of trauma.

If you, or someone you know is struggling with symptoms of OCD, it is important to remember this is a common experience which affects many people worldwide. Learning more about OCD can help gain more understanding, and build more empathy and patience. Being open and honest is always encouraged, both for the person struggling, but also for those around to simply listen without judgement, and avoid criticising which can lead to an increase in guilt and anxiety. Seeking professional help from a suitably qualified mental health practitioner is also encouraged, so as to engage in evidence based treatment and begin the recovery process. With time and patience the demands of OCD will lessen, making it easier to lead a life in which you feel confident and in control.

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