Finding help with the obsessions that can take over lives

DAVID Beckham is said to be very pernickety about lining up his shirts in order of colour and wife Victoria says he’s obsessive about symmetry and order throughout their home – but this need for order does not mean he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

On the other hand, while there’s nothing wrong with keeping the surfaces in your house clean but if you spend hours bleaching them every day and don’t leave the house because you’re frightened of the germs outside, you might well have the condition.

A problem suffered by between one and two per cent of the population, OCD can control a person’s life, because they’re cleaning all the time, repeatedly checking doors are locked and appliances switched off, or performing mental rituals in the belief that it will stop them harming someone they love.

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At the start of OCD Week the charity OCD Action hopes to raise awareness that this is a serious condition which can ruin lives. Director of the charity Joel Rose says that while many individuals experience obsessions, compulsions and anxiety similar to OCD, the symptoms must be profound to warrant a diagnosis.

“OCD can be a misused term,” he says. “Those who are diagnosed are at the very severe end, and not just a slightly quirky person. It’s like the difference between being sad and being clinically depressed. True OCD is when it’s taking over your life.”

The Royal College of Psychiatrists say the disorder has three main elements: thoughts that make you anxious (obsessions), the anxiety you feel, and the things you do to reduce your anxiety (compulsions). While people can have compulsions without having obsessional thoughts, very often they occur together. Carrying out a compulsion reduces the person’s anxiety and gives them an urge to perform it again.

“The obsessions are repeated, unwanted thoughts or mental pictures that cause distress, and keep coming back into your mind even though you try to resist them,” explains consultant psychiatrist Dr Paul Blenkiron. The most common obsessions are a fear of contamination by germs, of behaving in a sexually inappropriate way or being aggressive.

“Compulsions are the actions you do to try and make things all right, like checking or cleaning,” says Dr Blenkiron. “Unfortunately, these only work for a short time and actually keep the problem going by becoming an unbreakable habit. Imagine you’re convinced that someone you love will be killed in an accident today unless you touch the door handle three times. This is what it’s like to have OCD.”

He says OCD can affect someone’s life so severely they’re less likely to marry and can have more difficulty functioning in their work and social life than people with physical conditions such as diabetes. Sufferers often think they’re going mad, but Dr Blenkiron stresses: “People with OCD are not dangerous or out of control – quite the reverse.”

He says OCD can be successfully treated in the community. According to OCD Action, sufferers have the condition for an average of 12 years before they seek treatment, often because it takes them a long time to find the courage to ask for help. Treatment involves talking therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication and will help up to 70 per cent of sufferers.

There’s much debate about the causes of OCD, but the experts suggest that stress brings on about one in three cases. Hereditary factors could also be important, as can a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Symptoms of OCD can include: Recurring unpleasant thoughts; repeated horrible mental pictures – perhaps seeing yourself doing something uncharacteristically violent; constant doubts, such as wondering whether you’ve caused an accident or left the door unlocked; a inability to make simple decisions; a need for “perfectionism” and everything to be in the right order; regular feelings of anxiety, fear, guilt or depression, which can be relieved by carrying out certain behaviours; routinely thinking alternative “neutralising” thoughts, such as counting, praying or repeating a special word, to correct obsessional thoughts; performing rituals such as washing your hands or arranging objects in a particular way frequently; hoarding useless and worn-out possessions.

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