Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is an anxiety disorder that involves persistent, uncontrollable, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and actions that we are compelled to do,
seemingly against our own will (compulsions). In most cases we are driven to do the compulsive behaviours in order to alleviate the anxiety caused by the obsessive
If we just can't get it out of our mind that something is dirty (even if it isn't really) – we will clean it
incessantly no matter how clean it actually is.
The Cause of OCD
Various theories exist about what causes OCD. Let's take a closer look at a couple of them:-
1. OCD caused by Genetics:
Many anxiety 'disorders' and depression can be seen to run in families, but it's too easy to see this as proof of genetics being the cause of these problems. An obsessive compulsive or anxiety-riddled
parent may treat their child in such a way, and provide such a role model, that the child could develop these problems
entirely through learning and conditioning.
If a person has survived in life despite an existence plagued by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours, it's not
unreasonable to assume that these survival 'tactics' will be passed to his offspring in order to increase their chances of
survival. An obsessive compulsive person, no doubt passes genetic information relating to these behaviours to his
However, DNA is our past not our future. Information that is passed between a parent and child does not result in actual
behaviours, but predispositions. Not fixed behaviours but ways of behaving we are susceptible to develop given the right
A parent cannot pass on fixed behaviours for the environment the child is born into is unknown; the knowledge
we inherit has to flexible to enable us to adapt and survive – reacting with extreme anxiety to unconditional love would
not be adaptive.
And, of course, many people with OCD bring up perfectly normal emotionally healthy children.
2. OCD Caused by Physical Brain Problems:
PET (Positron Emission Tomography) brain scans of people with OCD show increased energy use in the orbital cortex
of the brain, compared to those who don't have OCD. This is taken by some to mean that these brain differences are the cause
However, brain scans of violinists show the area of the brain devoted to his or her left fingers (the right primary motor
cortex) to be 2 or 3 times larger than that of non-violinists.
Constant use of these fingers in playing the violin have formed and embedded the associated pattern of connections in his
or her brain.
Playing the violin causes physical changes in the brain ... and so does OCD. It's not the other way around.
A Better Way to Understand OCD
Bad thoughts, in themselves, are normal; we all have bad, horrible, disgusting thoughts to some degree at various times in
No sane parent would hurt their child but we all suppress rage occasionally when driven to extremes of frustration and anger
by our children.
Virtually everyone has occasional intense thoughts relating to aggression or sex for these drives underpin our existence.
In one study, fully 80% of the 'normal' (OCD free) people questioned, reported having obsessive thoughts.
Compulsions, too, reflect human nature:-
• Our brain works by categorising and ordering information – watch children lining up toys, stamp collectors
organising stamps and office workers putting files in order.
• Checking switches and doors is a normal safety precaution.
• Cleaning protects us from disease and germs that could actually kill us.
Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours are, in themselves, normal. The problem lies in why particular obsessions and
compulsions develop and grow.
So what causes obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour?
Here's a couple of pointers:-
Obssessive Intrusive Negative Thoughts:
In an experiment in the 1970's insomniacs who couldn't get to sleep because of incessant intrusive thoughts were given placebo
pills (sugar pills with no effect).
Some were told the pills would relax them (stop the uncontrollable thoughts and help them sleep). Others were told that the
pills would make them more alert (more active, think more).
Surprisingly, the ones who were told that the pill would make them more alert went to sleep faster. They did so because they
were able to attribute their inabilty to sleep to the pill and not some problem within themselves.
Until recently, nothing had really answered what is happening when we have to perform checking / cleaning rituals again and
again and again. All we knew was that the person thought or believed something.
Then, in the excellent book on OCD: Brain Lock by Jeffrey M Schwartz, MD, the reason was taken a step further:-
~ The example is given about a woman who has to repeatedly check that her electric kettle is switched off.
Despite checking many times and knowing that she had switched it off, she had to repeatedly check it again and
'Brain Lock' offers one of the best explanations so far – that the woman doesn't only think or believe that the kettle is
left on but that she FEELS that it is left on.
Now we are getting somewhere; it's feelings that lie at the heart of all these
behaviours. This answer in 'Brain Lock' is very good – but it is not quite correct, there's more to it than this.
The woman doesn't feel that the kettle is left on, she feels something else (and it has nothing to do with the
It's something that she feels about herself.
Anxiety and OCD
Anxiety is part of being human. It is a survival instinct that has evolved over millions of years; a
series of mind and body responses that help to warn us of danger and keep us from being hurt.
Everyone feels anxious at times
In OCD we start to connect our anxiety to possible threats around us, threats we cannot see but that could harm us. Being
harmed by germs or punished by God are common ones.
Worries over these unseen threats soon become obsessive and cause even more anxiety. So much anxiety that it leads to
compulsive behaviours to try and reduce it.
Over time, a vicious cycle of anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions develops.
Medical Definition of a Disorder:-
"an illness that disrupts normal physical or mental functions"
Self-damaging thoughts, feelings and behaviours with anxiety at their core.
Anxiety Self Help