30/07/2013 16:15

What is OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder?

A new BBC documentary follows OCD sufferers undergoing exposure therapy. Here are the facts.

OCD facts (© Getty)

These days, the label obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often bandied about light-heartedly, with people using the term to describe anyone who tidies their house more than average. In reality, however, OCD is serious condition that has the potential to destroy sufferers’ lives.

In a two-part BBC 3 documentary, Extreme OCD Camp, beginning tonight, a group of six British OCD sufferers will be filmed as they take part in a week of ‘exposure therapy’ in the American wilderness. The show is likely to reignite conversation on OCD, so what are the facts?

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder made up of two parts: a thought or urge which becomes an obsession and an activity that becomes a compulsion.

Obsessions are unwelcome thoughts that cause deep anxiety and sometimes make sufferers worry that they or other people will be harmed. These unwanted thoughts could involve worrying about whether the oven has been turned off, strong feelings of being contaminated with germs, ‘forbidden’ thoughts related to sexual desires or unwarranted fears over health.

Most people with OCD will also suffer from compulsions that create an overwhelming desire to carry out repetitive activities such as hand washing or checking to see if a door is locked. Compulsions may take the form of ordering or arranging things, repeating a mantra or having to do something a certain number of times.

How common is OCD?

Minor obsessions and compulsions are normal. Just because you carry around hand sanitizer and sometimes avoid cracks in the pavement does not mean you have OCD. The condition is diagnosed when symptoms get so severe they have a major impact on day-to-day life.

“It’s not helpful for people without a diagnosis to refer to themselves as a ‘little bit OCD’ or use this term just because they enjoy cleaning, as it trivialises the condition,” says Beth Murphy, Head of Information at mental health charity, Mind. “OCD in the true, clinical sense of the term is a serious anxiety disorder that can have a detrimental impact on everyday life, including someone’s ability to leave the house.”

Around 1 to 2 per cent of the population have OCD and it can affect people of all ages and from all backgrounds. However, for most people, the onset of OCD symptoms is in early adulthood.

What does it feel like to have OCD?

An MSN editor, who has chosen to remain anonymous, shares his story:

“I have had OCD for as long as I can remember. I’m obsessed with order, symmetry and patterns rather than cleanliness – for me it’s all about things being even, straight and in formation. This means I spend a lot of my time ‘tidying’ up things that don’t need tidying – the four coasters on the coffee table all need to have exactly the same gap around them, shoes need to be in perfect pairs, hangers all need to face the same way, the TV volume needs to be set on an even number.

"I realise I’m lucky to only suffer from these small afflictions, but if these things aren’t as they ‘should’ be I get incredibly anxious.

OCD is a neuropsychiatric disorder, linked with Tourette Syndrome. For a few years I suffered a tic whereby I would continuously cough; especially at night time in bed if I knew my girlfriend had to get up early. I’ve managed to curb this recently, without any medication, although I have coughed a couple of times while typing this. My aim is to treat my OCD through willpower, although a couple of trials (leaving cupboard doors open, making the rug in the living room wonky) have just led to me getting overly anxious and having rows with my girlfriend.”

Tonight’s BBC documentary, Extreme OCD Camp, focuses on ‘exposure therapy’. What is this?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends cognitive behavioural therapy to treat OCD, with varying intensity depending on severity of symptoms.

Exposure Response Prevention – ERP or exposure therapy – as seen in the BBC documentary is strongly recommended. “This aims to help the individual feel less anxious about obsessive thoughts, and make them less likely to engage in compulsive behaviour by helping them confront the problem situation and resist the urge to carry out the compulsive behaviour,” says Murphy. “This approach can cause a lot of distress and anxiety if it is not carefully managed so it is important that the individual understands the treatment fully and feels comfortable with their therapist. We know it can be effective for many people but would only suggest using this approach for people with severe symptoms who have tried lower intensity versions of CBT, and medication.”

If you are worried about any of the symptoms mentioned in this feature, visit your GP or get more information from Mind.

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