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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Everyone may have ideas that resemble compulsions at times, such as checking whether the stove is turned off or the door is locked. When the compulsion prevents a person from living their life, it is classified as an illness. One for which help is available.

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an illness that produces obsessions that may lead to compulsions. If the compulsive behaviour takes up at least one hour a day or impairs your quality of life, you may be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The illness most often appears in childhood or adolescence, and affects at least two percent of all Swedes.

The sick person is almost always aware of their irrational behaviour and wants to stop, but they are unable to due to anxiety and other difficult emotions that arise if they do not obey the compulsion.

What are obsessions and compulsions?

An obsession is an intrusive thought that irritates someone, frightens them or causes discomfort. The thoughts may be that you or your loved ones may be badly injured, or that you might end up injuring someone. They often start with “imagine if …”

The thoughts can also lead to compulsions, i.e. the person feels forced to act in a certain way to silence their thoughts or reduce their anxiety. The person may have a strong sense that something is wrong, and therefore they need to fix it by performing an action repeatedly until it feels “right” again.

Common compulsions are frequent washing, checking locks and the stove or repeating things to oneself as a mantra. For example, the person may feel compelled to chant a particular set of words to protect relatives from accidents or other calamities.

How does this affect a person’s life?

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder often have a strong need for control and routines. It is common for the person to be ashamed of themselves and their behaviour, causing them to isolate themselves. The person may often be late or not even leave the house because they are preoccupied with their thoughts and control. Washing an abnormal amount can give a person problems with sores and redness on their hands.

Living with obsessions and compulsions is not a choice. The troublesome thoughts and feelings are not due to the personality but rather the illness. As a relative of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is important not to blame the person as this may worsen their anxiety.

How and where can I seek help?

If you or a relative are living with compulsive behaviour and therefore have a lot of anxiety or difficulty coping with everyday life, professional help is available. Begin by contacting a health centre or outpatient psychiatric clinic. If you are under 18, you can also contact a youth clinic, school health services or BUP. Taking the step of seeking help may feel easier if a close relative provides encouragement and support.

Treatment may consist of psychotherapy, medication or both. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has shown good results. It works by gradually encountering the thing that is unpleasant and resisting the compulsions, in order to reduce the anxiety in the long term. Relaxation exercises and physical activity can also be helpful.