By Betsy Vasquez, Therapist
Houston’s Gallery Furniture owner Jim McIngvale’s daughter, Elizabeth, had such an extreme case of obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, that she would wash her hands, repeatedly, until they became raw. Thankfully, she sought treatment and is now a public advocate for OCD and other mental disorders.
Due to public advocates like Elizabeth and popular TV shows featuring OCD characters (think “Monk” and HBO’s “Girls”), heightened attention has been brought to the condition. But do we really understand what OCD is?
“I think I’m OCD” has become a common statement I hear from friends, families and even other therapists. But let’s take a closer look at the condition.
First, let’s break down obsessions, then compulsions.
Obsessions are persistent, reoccurring thoughts, urges or impulses that are unwanted, and that, in most individuals, cause anxiety or distress. Examples include worrying about death or safety, the need for things to be in order or extremely clean.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors performed in response to the obsession like hoarding, arranging and re-arranging objects, excessive hand washing or constantly checking the stove, family members or door locks for safety.
When these two elements (obsessions and compulsions) coexist and are long-lasting, you may have OCD; however an official diagnoses should come from a mental health professional.
When working with an OCD patient, I first try to help them understand their diagnosis. This can help to normalize their feelings, and address any misconceptions, as OCD can be isolating and scary. After patient education, OCD is usually treated with medication and/or therapy. Exposure therapy, in which the therapist exposes the OCD patient to their fear or anxiety and the patient learns to refrain from the compulsion, helped Elizabeth to overcome her OCD.
Researchers can’t pin-point an exact cause for OCD —some studies point to genetics combined with environmental factors — but research shows mental health treatment can control it. If you feel you may have OCD, don’t hesitate to seek professional help – you don’t have to go through this alone.