What does OCD feel like? Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD can be an alarming mental health disorder for the people who live with it. If you have a loved one dealing with it, you may often wonder, “what does OCD feel like.”
While it can feel different for everyone, there are often similarities between what people experience with this mental health disorder.
Regardless of how someone experiences OCD, it can significantly impair their quality of life when it’s not well-managed, as with other mental disorders.
There are similarities between obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorder. In some cases, the treatment plan can be similar for both, mainly if there is symptom overlap.
What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health condition that’s relatively common. Estimates indicate OCD affects 1 in 40 people. The key symptoms of OCD include unwanted intrusive thoughts or urges. These are obsessions. The obsessions cause distress. The distress then leads to compulsions, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
The repetitive, compulsive behaviors interfere with relationships and everyday life.
Obsessions can cause disgust or anxiety. People with OCD will often realize the images or thoughts they’re having are unreasonable. However, the distress is something they can’t get over with logic or reasoning. People with OCD will often try to alleviate their distress with compulsions or repetitive behaviors.
So what do people with OCD do? Some of the common types of obsessions people may have include:
- A fear of germs or contamination by the environment or other people
- Fear of blurting out offensive or insulting things is a common obsession
- Concern with precision, symmetry, or order
- Disturbing sexual obsessions, including images or thoughts
- Recurrent thoughts of images, numbers, or words
- Fear of throwing away or losing something
Compulsions are expressive responses directly associated with obsessions like handwashing to eliminate contamination, or they can also be unrelated. In severe cases of OCD, rituals and compulsive behaviors can make it impossible for someone to have a normal routine.
Compulsions might include:
- Arranging or ordering things in a certain way
- Excessive showering, hand-washing or teeth-brushing
- Repeated cleaning of certain objects
- Repeatedly counting to a certain number
- Checking locks or appliances repeatedly
- Constantly seeking approval is a common type of compulsion
What Does OCD Feel Like?
When you have OCD, it can feel like your life is very uncertain. You might know, on a logical level, for example, that you locked your door when you left for work. Even though you know this, you might not be able to stop thinking about it all day. You could be at the same time convinced you didn’t lock it even knowing you did logically.
You could be so overwhelmed with the intrusive thoughts that you leave work to check. This could then happen every day or most days.
When someone has OCD, they can’t just ignore their intrusive thoughts. These thoughts interrupt their work and home life.
OCD is a very personal mental health disorder, meaning everyone who has it will experience it differently.
- The key defining feature is engaging in irrational behaviors to try and satisfy an urge.
- When you get an idea in your head, you may feel like you have to complete whatever it is before you can do anything else.
- You may think if you don’t get something just right, someone you care about will die.
- You may end up finding that you’re spending most of your day trying to fix things so that you can somehow make something else right, even though the two could be completely unrelated.
- Most of your time and energy is going toward your compulsions.
- If you have OCD, you likely know that you’re being illogical, but your brain can’t let you stop.
If you have a loved one with OCD, this is why explaining it’s illogical isn’t going to help them. Instead, it’s probably just going to frustrate them more. They already know it’s not rational. They still can’t control their thoughts and compulsions.
Understanding Intrusive Thoughts
Since the mental health condition is defined primarily by disturbing, distressing intrusive thoughts, the following are some examples of how someone might experience OCD symptoms:
- Unwanted images: Intrusive thoughts could be like a movie that constantly plays in your mind or a vivid static image for someone who thinks more visually. You could, for example, repeatedly envision something terrible happening to a loved one, or you could imagine getting sick because of contamination fears or dirty objects.
- Sensations: Unwanted sensations could be something that you think about constantly, and it could cause you to feel anxious about what’s causing it.
- Intrusive thoughts: You might have what-if questions that regularly pop up in your mind.
- Memories: There could be a real-life basis for intrusive thoughts, such as repeatedly remembering a time when you made a mistake or were embarrassed.
OCD and Rumination
OCD and rumination can go hand-in-hand with one another. Rumination is a co-occurring symptom also found in anxiety disorders and depression. Rumination means you engage in repetitive negative thought processes. These negative thoughts can continuously loop in your mind without end.
Rumination is often distressing, and you may continue to repeat negative thoughts about a future event or try to predict how something will turn out.
Rumination takes up a lot of time and energy, so it’s a serious mental health issue. Within the context of OCD, rumination is a compulsion.
Compulsions can reduce short-term distress but usually reinforce OCD over the long term. Rumination is a mental compulsion that other people might not be able to see. If you have OCD, your intrusive thought might be that your life is meaningless, as an example.
Then, your rumination could focus on finding purpose in your life if there is no meaning. You’re trying to solve the problem created by your intrusive thought with the rumination.
Who Can Help with OCD?
There are treatment options for OCD; the goal is to help restore your ability to function in your daily activities and normal life without a significant amount of disruption from your symptoms.
The most effective OCD treatment is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Cognitive-behavioral therapy may or may not be combined with medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs are often used to help with OCD symptoms. Other anti-depressant medications may be helpful for common symptoms of this mental health disorder as well.
There’s a particular type of cognitive-behavioral therapy—Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which can be an incredibly effective treatment for OCD and is the gold standard.
- Exposure and Response Prevention is behavioral therapy usually done by a licensed mental health professional in an outpatient setting.
- Usually, ERP is one-on-one, but it can also be effective in a group or through teletherapy.
- In ERP therapy, if you have OCD, your therapist will put you in controlled situations where you’re exposed to your obsessions gradually.
- You’re asked not to perform compulsions that you would typically do. You can take things as slowly as you need to as you deal with the feelings of anxiety.
- To begin ERP, you first have to describe your obsessions and compulsions.
- If you aren’t ready to jump into real-world situations immediately, other types of exposure therapy are more gradual. For example, there’s imaginal exposure or visualization.
- Your therapist will create scenarios that would elicit an anxiety response in you.
- You then reduce your anxiety in response to that scenario in the form of mental images over time.
- When you’re ready you can engage in ERP.
If you have a loved one with OCD or you’re dealing with the symptoms personally, a mental health provider or counselor can help you. Counselors can help determine a type of psychotherapy or psychological therapy that might work best for you; to learn more about treatment for OCD, please contact the team at The Mental Health Center of San Diego by calling (858) 258-9883.