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As someone who has dealt with obsessive-compulsive disorder for over ten years, I now have the opportunity to share my own journey in recovery, as well as respond to certain questions and misconceptions about this condition.
Below I discuss some of the most common questions and assumptions I have encountered from others.
Does stress affect OCD? How so?
For most individuals with OCD and other anxiety disorders, stress can be a crucial variable in how our condition affects us. Stress is definitely one of my greatest triggers, and my compulsions and obsessive thoughts will flare up when I am overly concerned about something going on in my life.
While in school, my OCD was always more noticeable before big deadlines or exams, and my inability to suitably handle the anxiety associated with these things negatively impacted my recovery. Managing stress properly and finding techniques to lessen it can greatly improve symptoms of OCD. Having outlets such as exercise, reading, or other relaxing hobbies are so important when trying to diffuse the feelings of stress and tension that can lead to a setback in your mental health and healing.
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Do obsessions or the presentation of OCD ever change over time?
While it is possible to fixate on one or two obsessions over the course of your lifetime, it is actually quite easy for the things you worry about to change while dealing with OCD. For instance, while my foremost obsessions have always been the safety of my loved ones and my preoccupation with my own health and anticipated death by terminal illness such as cancer, I have many other obsessions which come and go.
For instance, sometimes I become convinced strangers are placing bombs beneath the engines of cars in Wal-Mart parking lots, and this obsession will stay with me for a few days or weeks before receding in my mind. I also worry from time to time I am forgetting to turn the burners on my oven off and will be responsible for a gas leak or dangerous explosion.
Sometimes, its inconsequential things that concern me, such as the way the towels are arranged in my bathroom. Anything can trigger a new obsession, no matter how irrational it may seem. I once saw someone fall while riding their bike, and ever since then, I’ve been afraid to ride one due to my fear of falling, being tangled up in my bike, and run over by a distracted automobile driver.
Why can’t people with OCD just stop acting on their compulsions?
Here’s the thing about having OCD – most of us understand doing or not doing something has little to do with what we are afraid of. Compulsions are physical or mental rituals and habits we complete, usually to prevent something from happening. For example, every night before bed, I have to make sure the front of my husband’s bath towel hangs down lower than the back. I do this because I believe if I don’t, something horrible will happen to him (a car accident, bad fall, etc).
As much as the rational part of my brain knows this is illogical and untrue, I am still driven to do it because of the overwhelming fear the horrible thing might actually happen or correlate. When I was younger, I kissed my eyeglasses eight times every time I took them off because if I didn’t, I was terrified I would spontaneously go blind. Even typing this out, I can recognize this compulsion was illogical, but at the time it helped me calm my fears, however temporarily.
It is so important to gain control over compulsions because they are a key factor in the continuing cycle of OCD – you’re afraid of something, so you complete an action to negate that fear, but relief is fleeting and soon you’re afraid again and start to believe your compulsions are the only thing that will stop what you’re afraid of from happening or make you feel better.
Learning to manage the desire to give in to compulsions is ultimately one of the greatest steps in recovery from OCD.
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