Saturday, 19 January 2013

When habits turn unhealthy - OCD

Hi all

And a very happy New Year!! 

I thought I'd kick off my blogs for 2013 about an issue close to my heart, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or OCD for short). My older brother has suffered from OCD ever since I can remember and as a trainee therapist I also have a particular interest in the condition. I also thought that this topic is slightly timely as it's the new year and we are all trying to keep our resolutions, but when does starting a new routine turn into something less healthy, say an obsessive ritual?

What is OCD?

In brief, OCD is an anxiety disorder characterised by intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviours or compulsions. OCD can take various forms and differing levels of intensity, examples range from compulsively washing your hands, avoiding cracks in the pavements, or extreme hoarding. 

Its basis is that we can somehow ensure a positive outcome by performing certain rituals (e.g. if I switch my light on five times in row, then my family will be OK). OCD is driven by the fear of consequences, no matter how unlikely the risk.  As the ritual becomes repeated again and again, neural pathways are developed in the brain to positively support such actions and contradict the brain's rational thought process.

How common is OCD?

OCD is considered to be the fourth most common mental illness in many western countries. It's also a condition which can start at a very young age; in 80% of cases, OCD symptoms present themselves before the age of 18. OCD affects three in 100 of the adult population.

And OCD is on the rise. A recent report from the Mental Health Foundation found that fear levels are rising in the UK, and more than seven million of us currently suffer anxiety problems severe enough to affect our health. This increased fear and anxiety coupled with our busy modern lives, goes some way to explaining the rise of OCD, as we seek to take comfort in performing small rituals to bring back some control into our lives. 

Mr Beckham - an OCD sufferer
OCD has even taken on a slightly hip image with the likes of David Beckham (he has a thing about lining up coke cans and cleaning hotel rooms) and Florence Welch admitted to having the condition. Last year, Tory MP Charles Walker came clean (excuse the pun) about his battle with OCD and described his condition as "a hundred little blackmails a day". Awareness of the condition has grown a great deal and there even is an OCD awareness week (this year its from 14 -20 October).

What causes OCD?

The jury is still out on what exactly causes OCD to develop.  Brain scans of people with OCD have shown that they have different patterns of brain activity than people without OCD. This different brain circuitry causes impulses such as washing your hands after going to the bathroom to remain switched on, so the hand washing gets repeated where as with a non-OCD person, the brain switches off the impulse and allows the person to continue with their day. Also a recent study of laboratory mice found animals lacking the molecule, known as Slitrk5, exhibit behaviours similar to the human form of the condition including excessive self-grooming and increased anxiety.

OCD sufferers commonly share personality traits such as high attention to detail, avoidance of risk, careful planning, exaggerated sense of responsibility and a tendency to take time in making decisions. 

Can OCD be treated?

There are different methods which can help sufferers with OCD such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) as well as medication. However, OCD symptoms persist at moderate levels even following adequate treatment and a completely symptom-free period is uncommon. 

"A little bit OCD"?

Over the Summer, as part of their mental health series, Channel 4 did a fabulous programme highlighting OCD, starring comedian Jon Richardson, who wanted to find out if he was suffered with OCD (the show was called "A little bit OCD"). The programme highlighted some interesting issues such as how OCD can run in families and how living alone can exacerbate the symptoms. At the end of the show, Richardson took a series of tests to ascertain if he had OCD. It turned out that he didn't have the condition officially but certainly suffered from some of its well know symptoms (don't get him started on the order of cutlery in kitchen drawers for example). 

If you have ever wondered if you are a "little bit OCD", then here's a link to a quiz you can take courtesy of OCD Action, good luck! Do I have OCD quiz?

And for more information on OCD check out a national charity called OCD UK.

Till next month,

Take care