Obsessive compulsive disorder can turn your life upside down. You feel like your thoughts and behaviors have control over you and that you’re powerless to change them. Obsessive compulsive disorder is a serious psychiatric condition. Left untreated, the effects of OCD could damage your physical and mental health.
Signs and Symptoms of OCD
People with OCD struggle with obsessions and compulsions. An obsession arises as a need to have certain thoughts or perform an action. The obsession is intrusive and it demands attention in order to get relief from anxiety or other distress. For example, you may have repetitive thoughts about leaving the stove on. This thought feels overpowering. The thought then leads to the compulsion of checking the stove. You may check the stove over and over again even though you keep seeing it isn’t on. The need to check and recheck the stove may take an hour or more out of your day. You may realize this repetitive behavior isn’t normal, but the obsessions are so strong you feel you can’t function if you don’t heed their call. OCD compulsions take many forms, but often include:
- Seeing reassurance
Effects of OCD Without Treatment
People with OCD can learn to manage their symptoms with treatment. Research estimates around 60-70% of OCD cases are chronic. This means OCD symptoms are likely to stick around for the long haul if you don’t get help. Living with OCD can be agonizing. It’s important to get treatment for the sake of your emotional and physical health. Research shows that OCD symptoms can greatly impact your quality of life. Some general effects of OCD include:
- Problems at work and school
- Relationship issues with family and friends
- Trouble completing household tasks
- Negative impact on social life and activities you find enjoyable
- Poor life satisfaction
- Feeling isolated and disconnected from others
- Memory issues
- Increased risk of substance abuse
- Suicidal ideation (some people with OCD start thinking suicide is the only escape from their symptoms)
Physical effects of OCD can depend on the type of compulsion but may include:
- Dehydration due to rituals of avoiding drinking fluids to avoid trips to the bathroom
- Poor self-care and hygiene
- Incontinence thought to be linked to taking too much time to get to the bathroom because of rituals or fear of public restrooms
- Kidney issues or failure due to dehydration
- Scabs on hands or other body parts due to over-washing
- Being underweight or overweight due to rituals or disordered thoughts around food
Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions
People with OCD may also struggle with co-occurring disorders. This is when one or more mental health disorder occurs together. The conditions may share similar symptoms. They may also stem from some of the same underlying issues as OCD. These often include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
Sometimes common factors contribute to these such as:
- Childhood environment
These are some of the common co-occurring disorders with OCD:
The co-occurrence of eating disorders and OCD is well-documented. Researchers have theories as to why this happens. Perfectionism is a common trait in people with eating disorders and OCD. People with both disorders may also regularly experience:
- Low mood
People with obsessive compulsive disorder may also have anxiety disorders. In fact, the DSM originally listed OCD as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is also a common symptom of OCD. It’s what propels the compulsion. Anorexics and bulimics often struggle with anxiety as well. It’s possible this common denominator contributes to the onset of both disorders.
Like eating disorders, hoarding can be a symptom of OCD. Sometimes the obsession in people with OCD is a fear of throwing anything away. The compulsion is then keeping everything. They’re terrified they’ll throw away something valuable by mistake. Sometimes they’re afraid something horrible will happen if they throw anything away. Hoarding may also be tied to the need to acquire things in “magic numbers.” So they may buy 3, 5 or 7 of everything they purchase. A key difference in people with a hoarding disorder diagnosis is that they get pleasure from keeping items. Hoarding items typically distresses people with OCD.
Research shows people with OCD are at greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse. Many people with OCD report that they began abusing substances after OCD symptoms surfaced. This leads some researchers to believe that substance abuse may be a way of soothing the anxiety that underlies obsessions and compulsions. It may also be a way to soothe an underlying anxiety disorder that’s contributing to both OCD and addiction.
Hair Pulling and Skin Picking
Hair-pulling disorder and skin-picking disorder share some of the obsession and compulsion symptoms of OCD. People with hair-pulling disorder feel an insatiable urge to pull hair from their body. Pulling the hair provides temporary relief from anxiety. Picking at healthy skin or skin with minor flaws provides the same type of relief in people with skin-picking disorder. These disorders are grouped as OCD and related conditions in the DSM-5. They may share many of the same underlying issues.
People with obsessive compulsive disorder can learn to manage their symptoms. OCD treatment helps by addressing the underlying causes of anxiety and stress. In other words, it helps you find out what your need to check the stove is really all about. You can then work through these issues with a mental health professional. You learn healthy coping skills when urges arise. Medication for OCD is often helpful as well. This helps correct brain chemical imbalances contributing to OCD. Effective treatment for OCD may include:
Certain medications can help reduce OCD symptoms. About 70% of people with OCD will have fewer symptoms with the right medication.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Medication should always be paired with behavioral therapy for best results. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be particularly useful in OCD treatment. It helps you change thoughts and responses around situations that trigger obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Sometimes OCD treatment includes a type of CBT called exposure and response prevention (ERP). In this approach you’re gradually exposed to your obsession or fear. A therapist helps you practice different ways to cope with the situation.
Research suggests some people with treatment-resistant OCD may benefit from inpatient treatment. Relapse prevention following treatment is important. A residential treatment center may also be the best option if you have co-occurring disorders like substance abuse.