OCD: More than just being a perfectionist

By Rebecca Fiedler
Staff Writer

Obsessive compulsive disorder individuals can’t just stop being OCD.

Obsessive compulsive disorder-suffering individuals have told Dr. Thomas Fergus, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, that people tell them to simply stop performing their compulsions. Fergus said it’s not that easy.

“People without OCD have a certain sense that they know when to stop tasks,” he said. “An individual with OCD may not have that same perceptual experience as everyone else.”

International OCD Awareness Week was launched in 2009 and is celebrated by a number of organizations across the U.S. and around the world, with events such as OCD Screening Days, lectures, conferences, fundraisers, online Q&As, and more.

One in 100 people develop OCD, Fergus said, and the disorder is most likely to come about during a person’s late teenage years or their early 20s.

Obsessions are recurring thoughts which are assessed to be contrary to one’s sense of self, Fergus said.

Sufferers may be afraid of harming others or themselves, not having control of their environment or not achieving a level of perfection they believe is attainable, among other fears, Fergus said.

“Individuals who have obsessions typically have thoughts that they appraise or view as somehow violating who they are as an individual,” he said.

Compulsions are neutralizing behaviors performed to negate a perceived threat, Fergus said. Common compulsions include checking, washing, praying, aligning things symmetrically or ordering and counting, Fergus said.

With compulsions an individual is attempting to make their environment safer and reduce a perceived threat, Fergus said.

However, compulsions only provide a sense of relief temporarily, and actually will reinforce obsessions on a long-term basis, Fergus said.

Attempts at suppressing obsessions can often have the opposite effect, Fergus said.

“If you don’t want to have a thought, the only way to know if you do not have the thought is for your brain to actually monitor whether you’re having the thought,” he said.

Attempts to not think about an obsession will actually lead to an individual think about it even more; thus making it difficult to ‘just stop’ obsessing, Fergus said.

All people may exhibit some compulsive behavior, such as checking or cleansing more than is needed. What’s different about OCD is the severity of the compulsions. Compulsions as performed with OCD causes impairment, distress, and consume a significant amount of time for the sufferer, Fergus said.

“It’s a very impairing disorder,” Fergus said.

The term ‘OCD’ is used colloquially on a daily basis by society. People use it to describe someone who is highly perfectionistic, or who is fixated on or preoccupied with something, Fergus said.

“I don’t think people probably have a good sense as to what OCD actually is and what it consists of,” he said.

There is a stigma associated with OCD, Fergus said, like with most mental conditions. OCD sufferers may feel misunderstood and frustrated in the face of society, he said.

“People who are not familiar with it may view them as somehow weak-willed; they’re just ‘giving in to their desires,’” Fergus said.

Porter junior Zach Warman is co-president of the Baylor chapter of the organization Active Minds; an organization founded on the intent to educate the public on mental disorders and mental health, and to abolish stigmas about mental disorders.

Warman said the media today will skew and dramatize the idea of OCD, latching on to components of the disorder that are eyecatching and portraying it in a comedic sense.

Warman said people suffering from OCD are often hesitant to tell others that they have the disorder.

“A lot of times they don’t want to open up about that because they feel that they’re going to be already judged by the time they meet anyone, and that they might not be able to garner such a high position in society,” he said.

The best treatment for OCD is exposure and cognitive behavioral therapy, Fergus said.

“Essentially what exposure consists of is exposing an individual to something they’re afraid of or anxious about without them engaging in any safety behavior or compulsive behavior at all,” he said.

Methods such as talk therapy and Freudian psychology won’t help sufferers of OCD, Fergus said. Cognitive behavioral therapy has produced very successful outcomes, he said.

There is no ‘cure’ for OCD, Fergus said, though anti-depressants are prescribed to assist in reducing symptoms of OCD.

Obsessions can return throughout a person’s life, and the disorder waxes and wanes. A person can, through treatment, be taught how to confront intrusive thoughts when they arise, Fergus said.

Fergus said he encourages those suffering from OCD, or those who are concerned they may have OCD, to seek out treatment, but to do so in a cautious manner.

“Make sure that the professional you’re going to see has a certain type of theoretical orientation: cognitive behavior therapy,” he said.

Treatment can sound scary, but a therapist won’t force any action upon their patient and the patient will be able to work at their own speed, Fergus said.

Fergus said anyone who knows an individual battling OCD should not make that person feel alienated.

“The best thing you can do is to show love, care and empathy toward them, and encourage them to seek out treatment if they are distressed,” he said.

Warman said he advises the public not to define a person by their disorder.

“That person isn’t their disorder,” Warman said. “So if you suffer from a lot of anxiety because of your OCD, that’s not you. You are a completely unique individual completely unrelated to your OCD.”

Fergus said students can receive cognitive behavior therapy at the Baylor Psychology Clinic.