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OCD Behaviors: How do They Manifest?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) affects millions of people in this country from all walks of life. It can feel debilitating, discouraging and exhausting. If you or a loved one experiences OCD, you know the symptoms typically include developing strict routines or avoiding specific objects or situations.

What is less well known, but perhaps one of the most distressing aspects of OCD, is the amount of time someone spends engaging in OCD rituals. I've known clients who wake up four hours before they needed to leave the house to make sure they have enough time to complete a routine without being late for work, and clients who are physically exhausted because completing their nighttime rituals keeps them up well past midnight.

So what should you do if you are experiencing symptoms of OCD? A good first step is to begin to understand some of the root causes of OCD and how exactly these behaviors manifest.

What Causes OCD?

Health experts are not able to point to one direct cause of OCD, though they have suggested that a family history of the condition may increase a person’s likelihood of developing the behaviors. In addition, it is thought that irregular brain development or impairment of certain regions in the brain may also be linked to the condition. For example, the National Institute of Mental Health suggests OCD may be linked to how your brain responds to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and sleep.

Suffering from stress or a traumatic event can increase a person’s chances of developing OCD or worsening existing symptoms. In addition, periods of increased life stress can increase the prevalence of existing OCD rituals or lead to the creation of new ones. A perfect example of this occurred during the COVID pandemic. For many people with OCD, fears related to health, germs and/or contamination already existed. When the uncertainty and fear of a global pandemic was added, many people experienced a worsening of their existing obsessions and rituals.

Treating OCD

So what should you do if you think you may be experiencing OCD? While the symptoms of OCD can make life feel unbearable, there is help. Often the best first step in recovery is to connect with a therapist who has experience successfully treating OCD. There are several evidence based practices that are hugely successful in reducing OCD symptoms, including exposure therapy (ERP), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

If you’d like to explore treatment options, please get in touch with me. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.