Until about three years ago, I didn’t know that I lived with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in addition to depression. Despite its frequent portrayals on television and in movies as an occasionally amusing personality quirk, OCD can be debilitating and as far from funny as you can imagine.
OCD is a mental health condition characterized by a combination of intrusive, repetitive thoughts (obsessions) and ritualistic behaviors (compulsions). These obsessions and compulsions can significantly impact an individual’s daily life, causing distress and impairing their ability to function. OCD affects roughly 1-2% of the population worldwide and can manifest in various forms, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
Obsessions are persistent, unwanted thoughts or urges that cause anxiety and distress. These thoughts can revolve around various themes such as contamination, harm, or orderliness. As the stress caused by these thoughts increases, compulsive behaviors start to manifest.
The purpose of these compulsive behaviors is typically to neutralize or reduce the anxiety associated with obsessive thoughts. However, the relief provided by compulsions is only temporary, and the cycle of obsessions and compulsions often repeats itself.
OCD can be misdiagnosed as an eating disorder when it manifests as intrusive food- or body-related thoughts whose compulsive behaviors show up as disordered eating or strange exercise patterns. I am fortunate to have a therapist who recognized OCD as the root of my disordered eating and exercise patterns.
I have had experiences in the past where I became obsessed with the thought of gaining weight. On one occasion, during the pandemic lockdown, the result was compulsively accumulating steps throughout the day. I would walk in endless circles around my neighborhood. Although these actions would make me feel better and more in control in the moment, it didn’t last and I was back to feeling anxiety caused by the intrusive thoughts. I lost hours to these compulsive behaviors.
Treatment for OCD often involves cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically a technique called exposure and response prevention (ERP). OCD is very challenging to treat with medication. ERP has been quite helpful for me. Through ERP, I work with my therapist to gradually confront my obsessions and learn to resist engaging in compulsive behaviors, ultimately reducing the power of obsessions and compulsions over time.
Most people who are diagnosed with OCD experience it throughout their lives, to varying degrees. I’m hopeful that self-awareness combined with the tools I’m gaining from therapy will enable me to manage my symptoms and allow me to live my life as I want to.