As someone who studies behaviour I notice the little things in language and actions. I’m sure you’ve noticed that in recent times almost everyone claims to have OCD. It seems to me that this is a much misused term. Being neat and tidy doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD. All joking aside, I’ve written a little ditto to help explain a bit. If you also work with people I thought it might help you to notice the little things too…it’s not tool long, you never know, it might be useful.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is different from a phobia in that you might feel excessively anxious but without specific focus. You feel tense and unable to relax. You may feel many of the symptoms of a panic attack but without the climactic rush of panic. You may also be constantly worried about something bad happening to people you care about, and you may feel that your worrying keeps these people safe. The constant worry is very distressing and can make you feel that you’re out of control and might go mad.
Some people describe a strange and scary feeling of being ‘not quite there’, ‘unreal’, or ‘not in my body properly’. This is not in fact and Anxiety Disorder in itself, but happens very often so it’s worth noting. It happens when someone breathes in a shallow, fast way, which upsets the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in their system. It’s frightening, but not dangerous. If you’ve had anxiety for a long time and think you know everything it can throw at you, then it can be very frightening if these feeling of unreality suddenly develop on top of everything else you have to cope with.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) starts with obsessive thoughts, which are so upsetting that you search for a way to get rid of them. If your way is to carry out compulsive behaviours then you have OCD. Compulsions often have to be repeated many times before it feels like the thought has been cancelled out.
The obsessive thoughts are often, but not exclusively, about dirt and disease or about harming someone, either by accident or by giving way to an impulse. Thoughts about germs may lead to compulsive hand washing or cleaning. Fear of causing harm can lead to checking gas taps, electrical connections or the car.
Other compulsions may involve hoarding or a preoccupation with symmetry or arranging things in a particular order.
Sometimes there is an obvious link between the compulsive behaviour and the object of obsession, but in other cases there appears to be no logical connection. For example, someone believed they had to touch every lamp post they passed to prevent something dreadful happening to a member of their family.
Sometimes the compulsions are thoughts rather than actions. Obsessive thoughts about harming someone or doing something immoral or taboo may lead to compulsive thoughts about prayer to cancel out those obsessive thoughts.
Compulsions tend to increase over time, so that you find yourself having to do a longer ritual with more repetitions to achieve the same amount of temporary reduction in anxiety. This can be exhausting and so someone with OCD can eventually get to the point where they avoid as far as possible the things that trigger their compulsions. This can mean, for instance, that someone with a cleanliness obsession actually becomes quite dirty because they can’t face the enormous ritual of taking a shower or washing their hair.
If you have OCD you may well have always been a methodical, accurate and careful person. You may even have had a job that exploited these useful qualities. When you are under stress your useful qualities turn to OCD.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between OCD and a phobia. There is a sense in which most anxiety sufferers have an obsession – if you spend all your time worrying about having a panic attack, or finding a spider, or meeting someone in the street, then you are obsessed to a certain extent. And you could say that behaviours such as constantly checking a room for spiders, or crossing the road to avoid a meeting, have an element of compulsion to them.
But there is an extra dimension to OCD which is the link between the obsessions and the compulsions. A person with OCD usually has a strong feeling that they need to carry out their compulsions or some dreadful consequence will ensue and almost always feel that they must do their compulsion in a certain way – like a ritual.
So, if you’re afraid of spiders and you need to check each room for them then you have a phobia. If you feel that letting a spider be in the room is likely to bring bad luck or harm to yourself or your family and if you also check the room in the same way each time, then you have OCD. Similarly, someone who is anxious about the security of their home might double check that they have locked the doors, whereas someone with OCD might check repeatedly, locking and unlocking.
OCD can exist along other anxiety disorders such as social and health phobias and depression.
Please note, that the above does not apply to children..that’s a whole different story.