Applied Psychology

The Doubting Disease: What is OCD, and how can it be managed?

Oct 01, 2017
What is OCD

Millions around the world are afflicted by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. How can one identify, and manage, this disorder?

She may have an Oscar on her mantelpiece, but Charlize Theron is also a compulsive cleaner and cupboard-checker. ‘I have OCD, which is not fun,’ she admitted on an Australian radio show. ‘I have to be incredibly tidy and organised or it messes with my mind and switches off on me.’ As she told CNN’s Piers Morgan, ‘I have a thing about things that are hidden; I have a hard time. Especially if I’m renting a house and I’m working on a film, I have to know what’s in all the closets.’

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a psychological disorder that affects millions of people around the world. An OCD sufferer is plagued by obsessions – recurrent, upsetting thoughts or images – and compulsions – repetitive behaviours or rituals that temporarily reduce anxiety. While a healthy person might double check whether the stove’s switched off as a fire precaution, an OCD sufferer may check 20 or even 100 times. In some cases, up to an hour daily can be spent on these thoughts and rituals, severely disrupting a person’s ability to function effectively.

‘I had these massive feelings of anxiety and obsessive thoughts such as, “Have I locked the car?” recalls Annabel, 36, a Cape Town bookkeeper. ‘I felt out of control, and could only stop this feeling by working all hours or eating obsessively. I also used to write endless to-do lists: if I didn’t write neatly on the 20th line, I’d throw the list away and redo it. It was exhausting. Eventually, I went onto medication, which helps hugely.’ She jokes, ‘OCD employees are great! They do everything as perfectly as possible.’

The origins of OCD

Three to four percent of the population has OCD and roughly a third develop it during childhood. OCD may have a genetic component, though some children develop it after a streptococcal throat infection or rheumatic fever.

When considering the possible causes of OCD, scholars generally agree that both psychological and biological factors play a role in causing the disorder, although they differ in their degree of emphasis upon either type of factor.

Compelled to doubt

Sufferers experience overwhelming fears – of germs, dirt and intruders; of committing violence, taboo sexual acts or causing harm to others; of humiliating oneself socially, setting fire to a house or bankrupting one’s company.

Common compulsions include checking, counting items, touching things in a particular sequence, avoiding ‘unlucky’ numbers, locking doors, tidying and washing hands. It’s related to newly defined disorders including excoriation (skin-picking), hoarding and trichotillomania (hair-pulling), and is often associated with depression. To treat OCD, anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants and psychotherapy, especially CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), are recommended.

Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry and Megan Fox are sufferers, and Jessica Alba believes OCD has boosted her career by prompting her to perform to the best of her ability. If correctly managed, could this – or any – psychological disorder serve you?

Are you interested in developing a deeper understanding of disorders like OCD, and helping others manage these conditions effectively? A career in psychology may be for you, and South Africa is in need of mental health professionals. SACAP offers a range of psychology courses, such as the  Bachelor of Applied Social Science – a three-year course that incorporates essential “work-ready” counselling and communication skills. For more information, enquire now.

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