Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health diagnosis given to someone who experiences obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Some of the types of obsessions people describe experiencing include:

  • Concern over safety of friends and family, or that they will accidently or deliberately harm themselves or others.
  • Unwelcome and intrusive thoughts about unintentionally carrying out violent, sexual or blasphemous acts.
  • Fears about contamination, infection or disease.
  • Worries about things being in the right place, in order, or symmetrical.

I was terrified of making a family member ill through my actions. The thoughts spread to EVERYTHING. I would have thoughts that someone would be ill if I ate something, wore a particular top, went somewhere or any other action - Jess

Compulsions are often related to these obsessions. They are acts which people feel compelled to do and repeat frequently, beyond what is reasonable.

They include things like:

  • Checking e.g. locked doors, places they've been, their own memory of events, or their bodies.
  • Rituals e.g. washing hands, touching things a certain amount of times, arranging objects.
  • Correcting thoughts, e.g. repeating words in their heads or out loud, counting or replacing obsessive thoughts with 'neutral' thoughts. 
  • Reassurance e.g. asking someone that everything is all right.

It is common for people to feel that if they complete these acts in a certain way, they will prevent whatever the focus of their obsessions is from happening. They may get relief or comfort from their obsessions by carrying them out.

A doctor will diagnose someone with OCD by asking questions about how they are feeling or thinking and how that affects their behaviour. It is important to remember that a diagnosis is not a label. It is a tool to help professionals decide what types of treatment and support to offer. Diagnoses may also change over the course of someone's lifetime.

Having half my mind, busy with this all the time slowed me down, distracted me, and calmed me by distraction. But there was always that little voice, a feeling, an urge, that if I didn't keep it up, terrible things would happen - Dean

How common is OCD?

It is hard to say how common OCD is, as people often talk about the symptoms differently and some will never receive an official diagnosis. However, it is estimated just over 1 in every 100 people will fit the diagnostic criteria for OCD in any given week.

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about OCD?

Unhelpful and inaccurate beliefs about what it means to have obsessive compulsive disorder and the trivialisation of OCD can prevent people from taking their own, or other's, problems seriously and can stop people getting the help they need.

I do think there will be people, like myself once, who have been suffering in silence for many years with a full blown disorder, terrified of going to their doctor for fear of being locked up forever - Matty

You might hear people saying they are 'a bit OCD' at times to describe their preference for cleanliness or tidiness. While this can be the focus for some people's obsessions, it is not the only focus. Obsessions are also a great deal more serious than a preference.  

The power of words is so hugely underestimated. We know how much damage the ignorant comments of stigma can cause - Meg

How does OCD affect people's lives?

The obsessions and compulsions that people with OCD face are severe. They can stop them from living normal, healthy lives. They can lose relationships, jobs or their homes because of it. Sometimes the symptoms can become so difficult that they consider taking their own lives.

One day I came home and the only bearable option seemed to be suicide. I couldn’t take feeling this worried all the time; obsessive thoughts every moment - Carly

How can I help someone with OCD?

Find out about OCD

There are lots of resources online which you can use to find out about OCD. This may help you to understand what your friend or family member is going through and help you to feel more confident in offering support. Try starting with the Mind or Rethink Mental Illness websites.

Resist helping them with their compulsions

Although it might feel helpful to provide reassurance or help someone with their 'checking' this may prevent the person from learning to cope without their compulsive behaviour in the long run, which is one of the hardest parts of recovery. It might be helpful instead to gently encourage and support them not to carry out the behaviours at all.

Acknowledge their problems

People with OCD can face a lot of unhelpful beliefs and negative attitudes from others. One of the most helpful things you can do is to assure them you believe that they are struggling and they can share how they are feeling without judgment.

I spoke to a trusted friend... the very thing I had always feared - being judged - never occurred, what replaced it was empathy, understanding and support - it gave me the strength to take the conversation further and speak to my boss, then to my GP and counselling services - Wayne

Give them information about other types of support

Sometimes the support of friends and family is not enough. Letting them know about the support they can get from the NHS, private healthcare or organisations like Mind and Rethink Mental Illness can also be helpful. As well as treatment provided by medical professionals, such as psychological therapies and medication, community based support related to lifestyle, education or social activities can also help someone stay well. 

Remember you can't force someone to get help. Repeatedly trying to do so, before they are ready, can actually do more harm than good.

If someone is at serious risk or danger to themselves or others, Mind or Rethink Mental Illness have information on what to do in an emergency.

Personal stories about obsessive-compulsive disorder

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