Obsessive-compulsive disorder (often referred to as simply OCD) is a complex and challenging mental health condition that impacts millions of people. Symptoms that typically begin in childhood or adolescence will often plague an individual throughout his or her lifetime, especially if the disorder is never treated. Even with proper treatment, the nagging symptoms of OCD may never fully subside for some individuals. However, it can provide significant benefit in terms of at least learning to manage them so they don’t end up consuming your life. As with all psychiatric disorders, OCD can cause all sorts of complications for those who live with it. These potential complications can range from frequent embarrassment (e.g. having to explain why you always walk around your car five times before getting into it) to suicidal thoughts and behavior due to the distress, hopelessness, and despair the disorder can cause.
Here are complications that may arise as a direct result of living with OCD:
Problems at work / difficulties keeping a job – There are an almost infinite number of ways that OCD can wreak havoc at work. One of the most common is that performing compulsions can be very time-consuming. If there’s one thing that can lead to a frustrated employer and, ultimately, getting fired, it’s a consistent lack of productivity. For example, a bank teller who’s obsessed with germs and contamination may spend too much time in the men’s room washing his hands. Handling money that had passed through countless dirty, grimy, hands that may be contaminated with God-knows-what would be particularly difficult for someone like him. OCD can lead to conflicts with coworkers well. For example, a woman with a compulsive need for order may run into conflict when sharing work space with coworkers. Not realizing their coworker suffers from OCD, others may take it personally when she constantly tidies up after them or gets upset if they didn’t put something back in its “proper” place. Substance abuse – Drug and alcohol abuse are not uncommon problems for individuals suffering from OCD. This is often due to the desire to do whatever it takes to alleviate the disturbing thoughts, urges, and impulses, as well as the anxiety, shame, and significant distress caused by the disorder. What starts out as “self-medicating” can eventually lead to a dangerous addiction. Alcohol and benzodiazepines (medications that quickly reduce symptoms of anxiety) are two of the most common substances of abuse for individuals with OCD. Relationship problems – It can be very challenging being in a relationship with someone who has OCD. For some, it always feels as if they must take a back seat to their loved one’s disorder. The checking, cleaning, constant need for assurance, etc. can take quite a toll – even on the most devoted partner or spouse. Some individuals eventually give up, especially if their partner with OCD is unwilling to seek help or work with a skilled therapist. Children, parents, and close friends of an OCD individual may feel confused or exhausted by their loved one’s bizarre or irrational behavior. Poor academic performance – Students with OCD may find that school is extremely difficult. Many OCD sufferers describe their brain as being “relentless” – the unwanted thoughts won’t go away no matter how hard they try to ignore them. The obsessive thoughts and subsequent anxiety make it next to impossible to study or pay attention in class. When this continues, their grades can significantly suffer over time. This leads to even more complications down the road, such as not getting into a prestigious college, losing out on a much-needed scholarship, or being denied their dream job. School performance can also suffer due to compulsive or avoidant behaviors. A student who has a compulsive need to count may struggle to pay attention in class. The teenage boy with HOCD (homosexual OCD) may start skipping school to avoid his male peers, afraid that he might find himself attracted to them or have intrusive sexual thoughts about them. Low productivity – OCD can make it very difficult to get anything done. Not only can this have a negative impact on work performance, it can also cause problems in all other aspects of life as well. When so much time is spent engaging in compulsive rituals or mentally fighting unwanted thoughts and urges, it’s exhausting – and doing so interferes with everything else. Day-to-day responsibilities and basic tasks can easily be neglected due to OCD taking up too much time (and energy) each and every day. Shame – It’s a rare person with OCD who hasn’t struggled with shame as a result of the disorder. It can be extremely humiliating to realize that someone’s watching you with curiosity (or snickering) as you wipe every doorknob, spend 15 minutes scrubbing your hands until they’re raw, or meticulously rearrange the food on your plate before taking a bite. The frequent stares, giggles, and whispers don’t go unnoticed, despite the stoic façade that suggests otherwise. The shame and humiliation of OCD can cut deep, leading to painful feelings of worthlessness and despair. Depression – Depression is one of the most frequent co-occurring disorders for individuals with OCD. The depression is secondary to the OCD in many cases, developing as a result of living day-in and day-out with such a challenging, embarrassing, exhausting and exasperating disorder. Individuals who end up on disability as a result of their OCD are especially vulnerable to developing depression as well. OCD by its very nature is difficult, but life can be extremely hard for those on the severe end of the OCD continuum. Physical problems – Certain types of compulsive behaviors can lead to physical problems. This is especially true for individuals who engage in compulsive washing and cleaning behaviors. Multiple daily showers or constantly scrubbing one’s skin can lead to dryness, skin irritation, delayed healing (of acne or other types of sores) and skin disorders, such as contact dermatitis from soaps and other types of cleansers, and even permanent scarring. Suicidal thoughts and behavior – Some people with OCD reach such a level of despair or hopelessness that suicide starts to feel like the only solution to an otherwise “unsolvable” life problem. OCD can turn a person’s life upside down, making the future appear unbearable. For example, teens and young adults suffering from HOCD may become so distraught about the obsessive thought that they’re really gay (and therefore, they believe won’t ever be able to get married and have a family, or need to end a significant relationship) that they become suicidal. While most individuals never formulate a plan or act on their suicidal thoughts, a small percentage do attempt or successfully commit suicide. Limited quality of life – Any disorder that consumes a significant amount of time, negatively impacts relationships, or causes significant distress will adversely affect one’s quality of life. OCD – especially if left untreated – robs those who suffer from it of the joy, happiness, and fulfillment they deserve. Just getting through each day can be difficult. Tasks that most would regard as simple are anything but for OCD sufferers. Maintaining employment, having healthy relationships, and just getting through a day without significant anxiety – the things most normal individuals often take for granted – can seem unattainable with OCD.
Reducing Complications With Proper Treatment
Although the list of complications may appear daunting, many people with OCD can reduce those significantly with proper treatment. Treatment typically involves therapy, with cognitive behavioral therapy being one of the most effective therapeutic approaches available today. CBT helps you identify and change the distorted beliefs, irrational thoughts and maladaptive behaviors that underlie your OCD obsessions and compulsions. Medication, preferably used in conjunction with therapy, may also be beneficial for some individuals. Due to the particularly complex nature of OCD, it can’t be stressed enough that therapy should be done only with a therapist who either specializes in treating OCD, or who at least has a lot of experience in treating the disorder effectively. Not all therapists have the skills, knowledge, or experience to properly treat OCD and may – despite good intentions – even end up doing more harm than good. If you or someone you love suffers from OCD, proper treatment can make a world of difference. It will take time, commitment, and a lot of work – but treatment can help you learn to manage – and possibly even overcome – the troubling obsessions and compulsions that are keeping you from living the life you deserve.