Obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly abbreviated as OCD, is a common mental health illness characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are distressing, unwanted thoughts, mental images, or urges that can cause a great deal of anxiety and emotional anguish. Conversely, compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental rituals that a person feels compelled to do to “neutralize” their anxiety-provoking thoughts.
OCD can affect anyone and typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that approximately 2.2 million adults in the United States live with OCD.
People with OCD are often aware that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational but are unable to control them. This can lead to low self-esteem, shame, and embarrassment and make it hard for people to seek treatment or social support.
There are four main OCD subtypes, each having a unique set of symptoms:
People with this type of OCD may obsess about making mistakes or harming others. As a result, they may feel the need to check things repeatedly in an attempt to “neutralize” their anxiety-provoking thoughts. For example, someone with this type of OCD may feel the need to check the door several times before leaving their house or constantly check their work for mistakes.
This OCD subtype is characterized by intense fears of contamination or becoming sick. People with OCD may obsess about dirt, germs, toxins, chemicals, and other potential contaminants. This can lead to compulsive hand-washing, cleaning, and avoidance behaviors.
Symmetry and Orderliness
People with this OCD subtype have an overwhelming obsession with symmetry, orderliness, and perfection and may engage in compulsive ordering, arranging, and straightening behaviors to ensure everything is “just right.”
Ruminations and Mental Compulsions
This OCD subtype is characterized by repetitive, intrusive thoughts that can be extremely distressing. People with rumination OCD may obsess about a particular worry or concern and may find it difficult to “let go” of these thoughts. These thoughts mainly follow specific themes such as death or suicide, hurting others, sexual violence, and religious blasphemy.
Why Does OCD Get Worse?
People with mild to moderate OCD symptoms may rationalize their obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors as harmless quirks or temporary coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, OCD often worsens with time, especially if left untreated.
This can seriously impact a person’s life and lead to severe impairment, making it difficult to work, study, or even enjoy the simple pleasure of life. Some factors that can contribute to the worsening of OCD symptoms include:
Excessive stress is a common denominator when it comes to mental illnesses and can trigger OCD flare-ups. Major life transitions, emotional trauma, and other stressful life experiences can all exacerbate OCD symptoms.
Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions
Having co-occurring mental health conditions can exacerbate OCD symptoms and make them harder to manage. For example, people with depression or anxiety may be more likely to engage in compulsive behaviors as a way of coping with their symptoms.
People with OCD may engage in substance abuse as a way of self-medicating their symptoms. Unfortunately, this can lead to a spiral effect, with substance abuse worsening OCD symptoms and making them harder to treat.
Substance abuse can alter brain chemistry in a way that exacerbates OCD. It may also lead to substance use disorders and other mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, further compounding the problem.
Lack of Treatment
One of the most essential steps in managing OCD is seeking professional treatment. Unfortunately, many people with OCD do not get the help they need, either because they are embarrassed and ashamed or don’t think their symptoms are severe enough to warrant treatment.
Without proper medical care, OCD symptoms can progress and become more ingrained over time, leading to severe impairment. If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, it’s vital to seek professional help as soon as possible.