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Careful or compulsive? OCD explained

Are you always running late because you check the stove is off five times before you leave the house? Or are you known among your friends for having the cleanest and most organised pantry going around? You may just be extremely diligent. But if relentless checking, ordering or cleaning is something you feel you can’t control, it may be a sign that you have a problem.

Dr Richard Moulding, Senior Lecturer in Deakin’s School of Psychology, has spent years dedicated to researching Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a serious mental illness that affects 2.8% of Australians at some point in their lives.

‘OCD is highly disabling to both the individual and to their family. It’s characterised by obsessive thoughts, images or impulses, and acts (compulsions) performed to ward off the resulting anxiety or the potentially negative event related to the obsessional thoughts,’ says Dr Moulding.

More to it than just being a ‘clean freak’

‘There are several common obsessions associated with OCD, such as fears about contamination or germs, thoughts of death and physical violence, thoughts about accidental harm like leaving doors unlocked and being burgled, fear of engaging in socially unacceptable behaviour, the need for order and symmetry, or unwanted sexual thoughts, blasphemous thoughts or religious doubts.’

He says sufferers ‘address’ these obsessions through compulsions, such as washing, checking, cleaning, counting, ordering and arranging, and performing daily tasks in a rigid ritualistic fashion.

‘Generally, compulsions are aimed to “neutralise” the obsession – so if a person fears that they may have been contaminated, they might wash or change their clothes, if they have fears they may have not turned off a light, they will return to check it, if they have unwanted repugnant thoughts, they will try and rid that thought from their mind or redo an action until it isn’t accompanied by the thought,’ says Dr Moulding.

'People with OCD report living in their own private hell for years, while outwardly seeming to cope with, and lead, a relatively normal life.'

Dr Richard Moulding,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

How does OCD develop?

As with most mental illnesses, everyone has OCD to a certain extent, and Dr Moulding explains that experiencing occasional intrusive thoughts is not necessarily a sign of OCD. But it is deemed to be a problem when it causes significant distress, disruption to someone’s life, or takes up a significant amount of time each day.

So why do some people develop OCD and others do not? Dr Moulding says that like all mental illnesses, there are multiple factors working together when a person develops OCD.

‘There is a biological component, with the disorder being heritable, although a substantial component of the disorder appears environmentally based,’ he says. ‘There is an association of OCD with tic disorder and some but certainly not the majority of cases of OCD follow injury or infection, which also lends credence to a biological involvement.’

However there is also a substantial non-biological component of OCD, where some people will misinterpret certain thoughts as being indicators of potential harm. This can lead to the compulsions or mental rituals in order to remove the thoughts – even though this makes the thoughts worse.

Unfortunately, those suffering from OCD may develop, or already have, another mental disorder. About one third of sufferers have a major depressive disorder, due mainly to the impact of OCD on their life, and more than 50% will have depression at some point in their life.

Dr Moulding adds, ‘Three quarters of people with OCD have been reported to have co-occurring psychiatric disorders, such as Hoarding Disorder, Social Phobia, Specific Phobia, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Living with OCD

While OCD is sometimes trivialised in television shows such as Monk or movies like As Good As It Gets, its seriousness cannot be understated. According to the World Health Organisation, OCD is the fifth most disabling mental health condition worldwide, and the 10th leading cause of disability in the world.

‘People with OCD report living in their own private hell for years, while outwardly seeming to cope with, and lead, a relatively normal life,’ says Dr Moulding.

‘However, this “normal life” is maintained at a great cost in time, energy, stress and personal effort. Studies have shown the impact on life is greater in OCD than in many other psychiatric disorders, medical problems such as haemodialysis and kidney transplant recipients, and even heroin dependence. It is at a similar level to disorders known to heavily impact on one’s quality of life such as schizophrenia and depressive disorders.

Unfortunately, suicidality is also high, with around a quarter of individuals having suicidal thoughts and 10% attempting suicide.’

Thankfully, Dr Moulding says knowledge of the disorder in the general community is improving and there are many treatments available that can help. He advises that if you are experiencing obsessions and/or compulsions to an upsetting extent, you should see a general practitioner, who can provide support and refer you to a psychologist (for psychological counselling) or psychiatrist (predominantly for medication-based approaches)

If you are experiencing a crisis, cannot contact a counsellor and need help urgently please phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you are a Deakin student, you can also contact the free counselling services.

More information about OCD can be found at the Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria or the Anxiety Disorders Association Victoria.

Interested in learning more about how the human mind works? Consider studying psychology at Deakin University.

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Dr Richard Moulding
Dr Richard Moulding

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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