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Do you have recurring unwanted thoughts that interfere with your daily life? You may be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Here we explain what it is and how to get help.

What are obsessive thoughts?

Obsessions are recurrent, persistent and unwanted thoughts, images or impulses that a person finds disturbing and cause anxiety or discomfort. Thoughts differ, but common themes include a fear of hurting others, sexuality, and compulsions such as checking the stove or turning off lights.

They are a central part of what characterises Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). About 1-2% of people have OCD, but many have obsessions that do not fully meet diagnostic criteria. It is a condition that can cause a lot of suffering and limitations in everyday life, but there is effective treatment for it.

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Why do people get OCD?

The causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are complex and thought to be a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. It is important to note that there is no single specific cause of OCD, but rather an interplay of different factors.

Obsessive thoughts in children

OCD can affect a child’s daily life and well-being in many ways. The child might have constantly recurring thoughts that are unpleasant or frightening. These thoughts are often irrational or exaggerated, with the child doing various compulsive acts as a consequence. This can lead to anxiety and interfere with everyday activities. Children often seek reassurance from adults and ask lots of questions. Children may also experience increased negative emotions from OCD such as anger and withdrawal.

Why children develop OCD is not fully understood but the causes are likely to be similar to adults, although stressful events such as divorce, bereavement or changing schools can make the condition worse.

What can you do as a parent of a child with OCD?

If you have a child with OCD, you can educate yourself to be able to provide adequate support, but also contact a child psychologist or doctor if necessary. It is important to create a supportive environment for expressing feelings at home and not to reinforce compulsive behaviours. If necessary, you can also talk to the school. It is good to seek help as soon as possible so that problems do not get worse in the long run.


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Obsessions and neuropsychiatric problems

Many people with neuropsychiatric problems, such as autism, suffer from obsessive thoughts. This may be because they are detail-oriented and perfectionist. Problems with flexibility can also lead to people getting stuck in thoughts about how they should be. If you have been diagnosed or believe you have autism, you can seek help from a licensed psychologist or occupational therapist to help you manage thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have become problematic.

OCD and perfectionism

OCD, which is the diagnosis for compulsive thoughts and actions, is similar to perfectionism. To reduce anxiety, people perform various behaviours or rituals that can take up time and energy. If you don’t perform the compulsion, you may have catastrophic thoughts and strong fears. Examples of OCD include turning lights on and off, checking the stove or washing hands for fear of germs. OCD is similar to perfectionism because people often want to do the compulsion in a certain specific, exacting way to get emotional relief. OCD can be treated, but it may require effort.

Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive thoughts often occur as part of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and the symptoms can vary from person to person, often following similar patterns. Symptoms vary from mild to severe, and change over time.

OCD consists mainly of obsessions and compulsions, with obsessions being intrusive and recurrent thoughts while compulsions are repetitive behaviours such as washing hands, counting, and checking things. Compulsions can also be mental, such as repeating certain words to reduce anxiety. They may also ask a lot of questions to their surroundings and seek other reassurances to reduce anxiety, which may work temporarily but the anxiety often comes back. Obsessions can also include fear of dirt or germs, doubting whether you have turned off the stove, needing to organise things in certain ways, fear of certain thoughts of a sexual or violent nature, and a fear that you will act on your thoughts even though you have never done so before.

It is important to emphasise that obsessions and compulsions are unwanted and create significant suffering or disability. Anxiety and stress may be high in general, and the problems may lead to feelings of shame and isolation. People with these symptoms should seek professional help to get effective treatment.

Treatment of obsessions

It is important to seek professional help if you or someone you know is suffering from OCD. A psychiatrist or psychologist can offer a personalised treatment plan and help find the most effective combination of interventions. The treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) usually involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication. For more severe problems, a referral to specialist psychiatry can be made through your GP.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

This is the most effective form of psychotherapy for OCD. CBT involves identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviours. One tool in CBT, known as exposure and response prevention (ERP), is particularly effective. It involves gradually exposing the patient to their fears or obsessions so they learn to avoid performing compulsive acts in response. This is done in a process that is safe and predictable.

Medication

Some people with OCD may benefit from medication, such as antidepressants (especially SSRIs). These medications can help control anxiety symptoms, making it easier to participate in therapy and daily activities.

Support groups and education

Attending support groups and learning more about their syndrome can help patients and their families manage the condition better. This in turn can reduce feelings of isolation and help with treatment.

Seeking help can change your life

OCD is not something you need to deal with on your own. Talking to a professional therapist or psychologist can help you understand your problem better and receive CBT. You are not alone and it is okay to ask for help.

Your next step

If you or someone you know is struggling with obsessive thoughts and beliefs, it is a good idea to talk to a professional therapist or psychologist. Lavendla’s therapists and psychologists qualified and keep your conversations strictly confidential. Don’t be afraid to take that first step.


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12 frequently asked questions about OCD

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Obsessions are recurrent, persistent and unwanted thoughts, images or impulses that a person finds disturbing and cause anxiety or discomfort.

Is OCD a diagnosis?

OCD is not a psychiatric diagnosis, but it can be part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Why do people get OCD?

The causes of OCD are complex and are thought to be due to a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors.

What are the symptoms of OCD?

OCD consists mainly of obsessions and compulsions, with obsessions being intrusive and recurrent thoughts while compulsions are repetitive behaviours such as washing hands, counting, and checking things. However, you can have obsessions without meeting all the criteria for OCD.

How are obsessions treated?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that focuses on thoughts, feelings, and behaviours to change negative patterns of behaviour.

Can OCD be associated with other mental health problems?

OCD can occur in several different psychiatric conditions neuropsychiatric problems in autism. If you have autism or think you have it, it is important to seek help for that too.

Can children have obsessive thoughts?

Yes, OCD can affect children and teenagers and has the same causes as in adults but can be exacerbated by stressful life events.

What can you do as a parent of a child with OCD?

If you have a child with OCD, you can educate yourself to provide adequate support, but also create a supportive environment where feelings can be expressed and compulsions are not reinforced. It is good to contact a child psychologist or GP and involve the school if necessary.

Can obsessions affect my ability to work?

It can affect functioning and become very limiting in severe cases. If you feel the symptoms are affecting your everyday work, studies, or relationships, you should seek professional help.

What should you do if you have thoughts of harming others?

Having thoughts of harming others is common in OCD and if you have it, it is good to seek help and get treatment from a licensed psychologist or GP.

Are OCD and perfectionism related?

There are similarities between perfectionism and OCD where both can be driven by a fear that things will not turn out the way they should. Book an initial consultation with one of Lavendla’s psychologists and therapists if you have OCD and perfectionism.

Where can I go if I need help?

Lavendla makes it easy to book an initial session with one of our therapists or psychologists to discuss your problems and start planning a treatment. We help to make the difficult easier.

How obsessions can be treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

In this step-by-step guide, we will walk you through how OCD can be treated using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

  • Step 1: Assessment interview
    During an initial assessment interview, we will review your history and you may be asked to complete assessment forms.
  • Step 2: Treatment with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
    In a treatment with CBT you will work with thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to your thoughts. The treatment may include the tool of exposure with response prevention where you get support to overcome your symptoms. You can also work on your thoughts through exercises and mindfulness.
  • Step 3: Follow-up and adjustments
    Follow-up sessions evaluate the effect of the treatment and make any necessary adjustments.
  • Step 4: Continued follow-up
    After treatment, you will be given a plan to maintain your progress and ensure long-term effectiveness.

How can I get help with my obsessions?

Do not hesitate to seek professional help. It is the first step to getting help with your thoughts and improving your quality of life. You are not alone and we are here to help you every step of the way. Book an appointment with one of our licensed psychologists or therapists today.

In an acute mental health crisis, call 111 or visit 111.nhs.uk immediately.

Lavendla – Making the difficult easier

Written by dominic

Dominic is a Cape Town-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology.