When do simple personality quirks actually cross a line and enter the realm of obsessive-compulsive disorder?
Are you hooked on your trusty hand sanitizer? Is your closet organized down to every button? Such quirks are usually dismissed as eccentricities of a personality or strange preferences. However, sometimes, there could be a more serious issue at play behind the scenes: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an infamous condition characterized by compulsions and obsessive thoughts that is more prevalent than we think.
But, how does one tell if their OCD inclinations are actual symptoms that call for professional help? According to the executive director of the Boston-based International OCD Foundation, Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D., there isn’t some simple black and white test to determine who needs help and who doesn’t. Generally, it’s a matter of degrees. Yet, there are certain distinct patterns that could signify a full-blown case of OCD. The following are a list of the most common ones.
1. Hand Washing
Compulsive use of hand sanitizers or washing of hands is so widespread in OCD that currently, “washers” is an accepted distinct subcategory of OCD patients. This urge usually springs from a terror of germs and pathogens; however, experts explain it could also stem from a fear of feeling impure or making others ill.
If you’re obsessing about germs post-hand-washing or possess irrational fears regarding diseases, for example, contracting HIV from a public door, then this could be a warning sign.
2. Overzealous Cleaning
Those OCD patients, who happen to fall under the “washers” category, can also have a need for compulsive cleaning. As is the case with hand washing, patients often perceive housecleaning as a means to ease their fear of germs or feelings of being impure or ‘immoral’. Usually, cleaning provides only a temporary relief from their obsessive thoughts for their urge to clean gets progressively stronger during their next episode.
3. “Checking Behavior”
Returning four, five, or even 25 times to ensure the front door has been locked, or the oven has been switched off is what experts refer to as ‘checking behaviors’, and these happen to be the most common compulsions seen in OCD patients. Close to 30% of those who suffer from OCD happen to be afflicted with this behavior. It has been theorized that this compulsion could be driven by a deep-rooted fear of getting physically hurt or even an ingrained feeling of irresponsibility.
A subset of patients who suffer from OCD happen to perform daily tasks through count or according to specific numeric patterns – for example, they might count to themselves as they climb a staircase or clean the kitchen platform specifically 9 times. Such behaviors can stem from superstitions. For example, the belief that number 7 is prosperous may cause someone to think they could cause themselves or somebody else harm if they don’t swipe each window clean 7 times.
Those who suffer from OCD usually take their organizing to another level altogether – perfectionism. According to Szymanski, “It has to feel just right, looks just right, be symmetrical, be the right number [of items].” Such fussiness often stems from obsessions with symmetry or order.
6. Fear Of Violence
We all have those occasional, fleeting thoughts about suffering misfortunes or getting hurt. Research indicates that the more an individual endeavors to avoid such thoughts, the more likely are they to pop into his or her head – and this, apparently, is even more the case for OCD patients. According to Szymanski, “[They] could be trying harder to suppress these thoughts or they may react more intensely to them because they deem them as unacceptable.”
7. Unwelcome Sexual Thoughts
As with fears of violence, recurring unwelcome thoughts about taboo or inappropriate sexual behavior frequently occurs in those suffering from OCD. Patients could, for a moment, imagine themselves groping a coworker, molesting a strange child or even wondering whether they’re actually gay rather than heterosexual (or vice versa).
8. Dwelling On Relationships
Those who suffer from OCD are recognized for obsessively dissecting present or past relationships with coworkers, friends, romantic partners, and even family members. They may brood over at length on whether the offhand comment they made at work happened to alienate a colleague, or whether a trivial misunderstanding or miscommunication may have actually ruined their romantic relationship. Such a mindset could reflect that people who suffer from OCD possess an “exaggerated sense of responsibility” and have a difficult time accepting any uncertainties in their life.
“Breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend can make anyone ‘obsess,’ whether or not they have OCD,” says Boston-based psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Michael Jenicke, MD. However, it could be a very real sign of OCD if you can’t get rid of such thoughts from your head and they end up snowballing into “excessive self-doubt” or fears of not being a good person.
If you worry that you may be suffering from OCD, book an appointment with a psychiatrist or ask your general physician for a recommendation in order to get an evaluation.