Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: What it Means, Why it Happens and How to Treat it

How do you know if you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD? Some of the symptoms are immediately obvious to other people, but often not to yourself. For instance, at night do you get up multiple times to make sure you locked all your doors before finally getting to sleep? When you get done reading this article, will you have gotten up five different times to make sure you turned the stove burner off? How many times did you brush your teeth this morning? Will you check to make sure your phone isn’t off the hook more than ten times today? These are all examples of behavior that indicate the presence OCD.

Hey, there’s no question about it; obsessive compulsive disorder is fodder for comedy. People who suffer from OCD have been characters played for laughs not only on SNL or Mad TV skits, but sitcoms and even feature length films. Not that OCD sufferers are alone, of course; even the mentally and physically disabled athletes who take part in the Special Olympics had a comedy made about their problems recently. But OCD patients do differ somewhat because the disorder simply isn’t taken very seriously at all, whereas we all know the disabilities suffered by Special Olympics athletes are no laughing matter.

Obsessive compulsive behavior is funny to other people mainly because it seems harmless and bizarre. It’s not like many people die from it, after all. But nonetheless it is a serious condition. We’ve all been obsessed about something, right? Every one of us has gotten attached to an idea or a person or a habit that just totally consumes us more than it should. But a simple obsession isn’t the same thing as OCD. Obsessions can vary wildly for those who suffer from it. It can be something that is merely irksome, such as needing to make sure that the bed is made just absolutely perfectly, to something that genuinely affects one’s daily quality of life, such as never being able to get more than a mile down the road before having to turn back to make sure you didn’t leave the iron on. There are OCD sufferers who actually leave and return to their house a dozen times before finally being able to leave for their destination.

Martin Scorsese recently made a film about the man who is probably the poster boy for OCD. The reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes was not always a long-haired, long-fingernailed freak, of course. In fact, he used to quite the man about town, dating beautiful actresses and breaking flight records. The last half of his life, however, was spent in almost total isolation. He had developed a severe case of OCD based on an irrational fear of infection. He was absolutely obsessed with the idea of keeping infectious germs away. At first, this obsession was realized in compulsive hand-washing. It started out with Hughes washing his hands a couple of times an hour and slowly grew. By the end of his life he refused to have any physical contact with any human being.

Probably because of Howard Hughes behavior, obsessive compulsive disorder is often considered a form of mental illness stemming from a psychological problem, but increasingly the evidence suggests otherwise. Scientific studies indicate that OCS actually has a physiological basis that can be traced to an imbalance in the brain. This imbalance is located in an area of the brain known as the caudate nucleus; a part of the brain that works in tandem with the orbital cortex. The orbital cortex itself might be considered the brain’s Deep Throat; it’s our personal whistleblower. The orbital cortex sends out a warning signal telling us that something may not be completely as it should be. Whenever you get that nagging feeling that you forgot to lock the door when you left the house, or that you locked your keys in the car as you’re walking to the mall, that’s the orbital cortex doing its job. It’s a great thing to have as long as it’s in working order.

But sometimes something goes all wacky with it and it kicks into overdrive without knowing when to shut off. The chemical misfire in the caudate nucleus is responsible for this and when it happens Deep Throat keeps giving you the same information over and over. He keeps telling you that you left a pot burning on the stove or that the phone is off the hook even though you just checked five minutes ago.

One would think, of course, that since so many other problems caused by chemical imbalances in the brain have been lessened considerably through the use of drug treatment, that OCD would have a treatment. Don’t tell Tom Cruise I said that, though, okay? Let’s just keep it between you and me. In fact, some drugs have shown promise in some patients, but there’s still no Prozac for OCD on the market. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get some relief, however. Many obsessive compulsive disorder sufferers have found varying degrees of help through the combination of certain antidepressants used in conjunction with behavior modification therapy. It’s sort of on par with taking antidepressants while undergoing psychoanalysis. Even though OCD isn’t considered a mental disorder, the behavior therapy can be integral. Basically, the therapy is for teaching the patient to better control the anxiety and fear associated with having OCD rather the fear and anxiety itself. The antidepressants are taken to do that. Theoretically, by taking the medication one reduces one’s anxiety enough to better be able to respond to therapy. For example, if you take the antidepressant and it works to lessen your anxiety level, you will be able to establish more control over your behavior. Deep Throat will still be telling you to check the stove, but because you’ve learned how to control your reaction better, you won’t actually give in to the false information and keep checking it.
It’s a rich tapestry.

Obsessive compulsive behavior is not, typically, life-threatening. But it can make the one leads far less enjoyable and greatly diminish the overall quality. In addition, it’s a disorder that affects not just the patient, but everyone around the patient. It can put a strain on family relationships; it can create enormous problems in the workplace. And in the most severe cases, of course, it can leave you completely isolated from society.

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