Obsessive thinking is part of the human condition. I have to be really careful if I go on holiday because I always think I’ve left the front door unlocked. Rather than face a fortnight of worry, I’ve even asked the taxi driver to come home so I can check. These days I double and even treble check to keep my mind at ease.
For people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), these intrusive obsessive thoughts and the compulsive behaviours they have to perform to make themselves feel better can take over their life. It is simply exhausting. In fact one recent study showed that sufferers of OCD can even have a worse quality of life than people with schizophrenia.
Most of us have heard of OCD. In addition to checking, we usually think of people who suffer from OCD as people who obsessively clean because they are scared of the contamination of germs. In fact this is a common form of OCD, but there are loads of other patterns of thinking and behaviour that come under the OCD banner. Here are a few:
Tasks have to be performed evenly. For example everything touched with the left hand also has to be touched by the right hand. If symmetry OCD gets a hold, virtually nothing in life is left untouched.
Some people just can’t throw things away. If this gets out of hand people literally stuff their houses so full of things they can barely get in. Often the hoarding is for specific things, like newspapers or gifts, but sometimes it can be for everything, including rubbish. I remember visiting one man whose house was so full of rubbish, he had to sleep on the coach, and the only room he could access was the toilet.
There are many religious observances, such as prayers or mantras, that people can become obsessed with. Often they feel bad things will happen if they don’t repeat the prayer, etc. Some people are also plagued by blasphemous intrusive thoughts in religious buildings.
Some people are troubled by intrusive thoughts that are against their sexual preference, the occurrence of which leads to them endlessly worrying about their sexuality. The most common here are men who get intrusive thought they might be gay or a paedophile. In these cases they might suddenly imagine themselves in sexual positions with men or with children. Unsurprisingly they are horrified by the contents of their mind, and this precipitates endless worry of what this might mean. In my experience sexual OCD is extremely common, but because the man is so ashamed of the intrusive thoughts or images, he often suffers in silence.
In this form of obsessional thinking, people overblow the extent to which they are responsible for things that may happen. An example of this is most of us wouldn’t give a second thought to a cigarette butt burning on the street. People with responsibility obsessions would have to make sure the cigy was properly put out otherwise they would worry for days if a child was hurt by the burning stub. Another form of responsibility OCD is people who have the thought while driving that they might have knocked someone down, even though there is no evidence to suggest this. Rather than endlessly worry about possibly having killed someone and the inevitable arrest by the police, it’s easier to just double back and check to make sure no one is left in the road dying. When bad, this kind of OCD sufferer can spend hours needlessly going back and forth on the highway.
Some people get intrusive thoughts that they should hurt someone. For some reason new mothers can sometimes get intrusive thoughts to hurt her new born. Of course the person does not want to hurt their child, and the thoughts are extremely distressing for them and those who love them. Some men have even been known to hire bouncers to stop them if they attack someone, a pointless act, because these people are very unlikely to actually hurt anyone.
The thing that is common to all people with OCD is that the thoughts they keep getting are unwanted, and often, out of character, and lead to massive anxiety. In some ways OCD can be viewed as a phobia for the contents of your own mind.
For most sufferers, OCD starts young, with symptoms present before aged 30.
There is a lot that can be done to help people with OCD, but like all mental health problems, treatment is more successful if caught early. For people who suffer badly from OCD, the condition is often chronic but can be managed. Due to the difficult and often shameful nature of intrusive thoughts, most people put off getting help far too long.
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (cbt) for men in Manchester
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