Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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(This article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Joyce B. Robinson, Research & Education Department Director

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a neurobiological anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and repetitive, ritualized behaviors. Even though the compulsive behaviors seem irrational, the person with OCD is powerless to stop. It affects men, women, and children, and is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder. Approximately two to three percent of the U.S. population — or one in 40 adults and one in 100 school-aged children — have OCD.

How to Recognize OCD

It’s natural to occasionally worry about the well-being of someone you love, paying bills, or what the future holds. However, when obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions — such as physical acts or mental rituals — are difficult to suppress, cause significant distress or anxiety, interfere with work, school, or social activities, these may be symptoms of OCD.

A few examples of obsessive-compulsive behaviors are:

  • Fear of contamination: Repeatedly washing hands or body, excessive housecleaning, avoiding public places. 
  • Fear of harm to oneself or others: Constantly checking that doors or windows are locked, household appliances are turned off, or if a child is still breathing during the night. 
  • Fear of losing something important: Hoarding personal items and trash, resulting in significant cluttering in the home. 
  • Fear of offending God: Obsessing about sinning and violating religious rules, or repeating a same prayer over and over. 
  • Need for symmetry: A compulsive urge to constantly “even up” or re-arrange objects. 
  • Need for repetition: Repeating routine activities, body movements, or tasks.

Postpartum OCD

An estimated two to three percent of new mothers experience Postpartum OCD, which is characterized as obsessive, intrusive thoughts about a baby’s safety. Symptoms include excessively washing or sterilizing baby bottles and clothing, or washing other family members’ clothing repeatedly; isolating the baby to keep prevent “contamination” from others; constantly checking on the baby, or persistent fear of harming the baby.

Is there a Cure?

While there is no cure for OCD, the most effective and scientifically-recommended treatment is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

CBT helps patients understand that the brain is sending “error” messages, resulting in obsessive behavior. Once patients recognize these signals, the therapy helps them respond in new ways to control compulsive actions. Many psychotherapists do not have the proper training to diagnose and treat OCD. Before committing to treatment with any therapist, ask questions to help determine if he or she is certified in treating this disorder. Finding the right therapist is critical to successfully overcoming OCD.

Who to Contact For Help

Symptoms of OCD can differ based on the individual and a variety of situations. The majority of people with OCD are able to function reasonably well, and friends or co-workers may not even suspect there is a problem. But when symptoms escalate to the point of excessive time lost or an inability to work, or when uncontrollable fear and anxiety severely strain personal relationships, seek professional help! For additional information, visit the International OCD Foundation Web site at www.ocfoundation.org.

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