A Closer Look at Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
You’ve probably heard someone say, “That’s just my OCD acting up.” The term OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and it’s a real mental health issue, not just a buzzword. People who suffer from OCD struggle with anxiety created from thoughts and behaviors that seemingly redefine that person’s reality.
Symptoms can deal with obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors. A person with OCD might ruminate on the same details like seeing the same number sequence over and over again. In a more severe manifestation, they might have obsessive thoughts about burning their house down accidentally. That person might need to turn the stove on and off again several times before leaving the kitchen.
Other symptoms of OCD include:
- Checking certain conditions over and over again
- Worrying that you are contaminated or dirty
- The need to have everything lined up or ordered in a specific way
- Hoarding or struggling to discard certain items
Obsessive thoughts can give someone anxiety, shame or even disgust. Compulsive behaviors can be exhausting and seriously reduce a person’s quality of life. In the most severe cases, a person with OCD can’t engage in normal activities like going to work or staying home alone.
Where Does OCD Come From?
You might’ve started noticing the first telltale symptoms of OCD when you were in high school. That’s because OCD usually manifests itself in early adolescence for men. From there, it’s a gradual increase in symptoms over time.
Lots of people talk about having OCD quirks, especially in relation to productivity or work-related circumstances, but not all these people actually have the disorder. Figures from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) suggest that some 2.2 million people suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Psychologists don’t really know what causes OCD. It could be genetic, learned, environmental or a combination of all these factors. More research needs to be conducted, but for now, psychologists focus most of their attention on treating OCD and minimizing symptoms.
The Link Between Smartphones and OCD
If you’re one of those people who can’t stop looking at their phone or feel panicky without their smartphone, then research suggests that you could tend to be more anxious and obsessive-compulsive in your day-to-day life.
An Ohio State University study looked at people’s reliance on their smartphones and the “nomophobia” (fear of being away from one’s smartphone) that brought about a feeling of panic closely associated with OCD.
Results from the study were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior Reports, 2020. Researchers found a correlation between how high someone scored on an OCD assessment test and how much they felt stressed if they didn’t have their phone.
“It is that fear, that panicky feeling, of ‘oh, no, I left my phone at home,'” said Ana-Paula Correia, one of the authors of the study, associate professor in the department of educational studies at The Ohio State University and director of Ohio State’s Center on Education and Training for Employment.
“This concept is about more than just the phone,” Correia said. “People use it for other tasks, including social media, connecting, knowing what’s going on with their social media influencers. So being away from the phone or the phone having a low battery can sort of sever that connection and leave some people with feelings of agitation.”
Smartphones are almost an indispensable part of life. Yet, when you constantly feel the need to check and double check your smartphone, then this type of behavior trends toward obsessive compulsive behavior.
A Personal Story about OCD
My first experiences with OCD centered around my father. I didn’t know what it was called, but my Dad was the type of guy who needed an extra 15 minutes to leave the house. He always had to check and recheck the locks on the doors.
I just thought he was weird. When he went to the bathroom, my sister and I would laugh as we listened to him check and recheck the locks on the door over and over again. When he was upset, my Dad would obsessively clean the whole house.
My father never got diagnosed and he probably never even thought that he suffered from a mental health disorder. I can’t help but wonder if my Dad felt embarrassed or ashamed of his problems with OCD. That’s often the case with men, but OCD is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a health condition and shouldn’t carry a stigma.
Treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
One of the most common treatments for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). A therapist will commonly use a technique called exposure and response prevention therapy. This technique involves identifying and challenging irrational thoughts that center around a person’s OCD behaviors.
Non-medicinal treatment options for OCD usually follow two different tracks. There’s one approach that exposes people to the sources of their compulsive thoughts and behaviors. The other approach is to focus more on relaxation, teaching problem solving techniques, and stress reduction.
There’s new research out of the University of Michigan that can help therapists better tailor which therapy track works for the individual. The University of Michigan study looked at teens and adults who suffer from OCD.
The study results were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. During the course of the research, 87 teens and adults with moderate to severe OCD were given these two different types of therapy over a course of 12 weeks.
Researchers found that CBT was more effective and reduced symptoms more as time went on, compared with stress-management therapy or SMT. That generally holds true with what psychologists know about OCD treatments.
However, the University of Michigan researchers also used advanced brain scans to determine the treatments’ effectiveness. They found certain brain patterns associated with different individuals and the different treatments.
“We found that the more OCD-specific form of therapy, the one based on exposure to the focus of obsession and compulsion, was better for relieving symptoms, which in itself is a valuable finding from this head-to-head randomized comparison of two treatment options,” says Stephan Taylor, M.D., the study’s senior author and a professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center.
“But when we looked at the brain to see what was behind that response, we found that the more strength patients had in certain brain areas were linked to a greater chance of responding to exposure-based CBT.”
Basically, if a person was already adept at processing cognitive demands and reward, they were more likely to have success with the CBT treatment. Among those who responded best to CBT, the researchers saw stronger pre-treatment activation in areas of the brain associated with learning how to extinguish fear-based responses to something that has caused fear in the past.
Because exposure therapy for OCD involves facing the thing or situation that provokes obsessive and fearful responses, having a stronger ability to be motivated by rewards might help someone stick with therapy despite having to face their triggers.
Knowing this can help therapists personalize OCD treatments for patients in the future. “Our research shows that different brains respond to different treatments, and if we can build on this knowledge we could move toward a more precision-medicine approach for OCD.”
Can Cannabis Help With OCD?
There are also medicinal treatments for OCD. A psychiatrist can prescribe serotonin reuptake inhibitors which are a form of antidepressant. This can help to reduce symptoms of OCD, but prescription drugs can’t cure OCD.
In a Washington State University study involving cannabis, researchers found that the severity of OCD symptoms was reduced by about half within four hours of smoking cannabis. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2020.
The study tracked 87 participants as they smoked cannabis during a 31 month period. The higher the doses, and greater the concentration of CBD, the larger the reduction in OCD symptoms. However, the results were only effective for short term periods.
“The results overall indicate that cannabis may have some beneficial short-term but not really long-term effects on obsessive-compulsive disorder,” said Carrie Cuttler, the study’s corresponding author and WSU assistant professor of psychology.
“To me, the CBD findings are really promising because it is not intoxicating. This is an area of research that would really benefit from clinical trials looking at changes in compulsions, intrusions and anxiety with pure CBD.”
Final Thoughts on OCD
Some people think that OCD is just something that they have to live with. That couldn’t be further from the case. If you feel like you have symptoms of OCD, then you can see a psychological therapist who can help you better identify those symptoms and develop a treatment plan.
There are also support groups that you can join. It might be beneficial to network and link up with people who have gone through what you’re going through. If you’re looking for a place to start, then check out the International OCD Foundation’s support group link.