Jenika Shah, 32, a Mumbai-based software engineer, took a long time to realise that her obsession with symmetry was getting out of hand. “It started small, but over time it started impairing a lot of functions in life,” she says. Her work slowed, productivity was affected, and friends and family began distancing themselves. “That is when I realised I needed help.”
Shah discovered that she suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD, which has been described by the US National Institute of Mental Health as “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviours (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over”.
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It is important to know that you don’t have OCD if you love cleaning or arranging things in a certain way. Many people use ‘OCD’ as a term to describe anxiety or personality traits, leading to many misconceptions about the condition. While friends may joke and compare you to characters like Monica from Friends and Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory, the truth is that the portrayal of OCD in pop culture is often inaccurate. OCD is a medical condition, not a personality quirk, and it is important to avoid using the term unless you have been diagnosed as suffering from it. This OCD awareness week, the second week of October every year, we dispel some myths.
1. WE ARE ALL ‘A BIT OCD’
OCD occurs in 1 to 2 % of the population. Diagnosing a person with OCD requires a careful examination of a person’s history and mental status by a professional.
2. PEOPLE WITH OCD CLEAN A LOT
Not all people with OCD are obsessed with cleaning. One of the things that differentiate OCD from simply being particular is the impact of repetitive thoughts and actions on a person’s functioning. Someone with OCD constantly wants to follow a specific order and has to be in control of external events.
3. PEOPLE WITH OCD ARE ORGANISED
In general, our brains are wired to look for symmetry; it is natural to like being organised. People who have OCD do not organise out of a desire to do so. Instead, they are following an order created in their mind by an obsession. They believe they have to repeatedly carry out the order/act or face disastrous consequences. These people aren’t just cleaning; they are actually escaping grave distress.
4. IT IS GOOD TO HAVE OCD
The distress that accompanies obsessive-compulsive disorder is not helpful as is commonly propagated. It is a debilitating condition that hinders daily functioning because so much time goes into performing compulsive acts and they cannot focus on anything else.
5. OCD IS A PERSONALITY QUIRK
OCD is a psychological disorder; only the person suffering can explain why they do what they do and the distress they feel. The aspect we see is the behaviour, which is just a small part. Organising, cleaning, and hoarding in itself is not OCD; it stems from a deeper place.
6. STRESS CAUSES OCD
Stress can exacerbate OCD, but the disorder has different causes. These include genetics, neurotransmitter levels, psychological factors like sense of self-esteem and coping styles, and psychosocial factors like difficulties with social integration and finding emotional support.
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7. OCD IS LIFELONG
Like all mental health conditions, a person with OCD can have mild to moderate or severe symptoms. The duration varies from person to person. Age, culture and life experiences also play a role. In many cases, people do know that they are behaving irrationally but are unable to manage their anxious thoughts.
8. OCD CAN’T BE TREATED
With the correct evidence-based support, treatment and management of OCD is possible. Therapy and medication can assist in controlling symptoms. The course of action will vary depending on how long you’ve had symptoms, the duration of an episode and how it impedes your ability to function.
Medication is one way to help with symptoms and distress, but therapy is needed to support the person. With progress in therapy, your doctor could consider tapering off or stopping the medication.
(Inputs from Dr Wilona Annunciation, consultant psychiatrist, Catalysts, Shambhavi Kumaria, counselling psychologist, All Things Mental Health Counselling Services and Dr Rizwana Nulwalla, psychotherapist, Krizalyz Counselling and Mental Health Services)
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist.
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