Towards a Better Understanding: OCD

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Obsessive compulsive disorder, often known as OCD, affects 1 in 100 children in the United States. Symptoms of OCD can be obvious or invisible, so it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, especially in younger kids. Unfortunately, students with OCD may experience severe anxiety that ends up hurting their academic performance. By increasing awareness of OCD and its symptoms, we can ensure students diagnosed with this disorder receive access to programs and resources that can help.

To better understand OCD, we can start by breaking down the name. OCD is a two-part struggle. First, the individual experiences one or more obsessions which cause intrusive and very distressing thoughts. To try and reduce or stop these frightening feelings, individuals feel a very strong need to complete an action or thought process – which may or may not be repetitive. As the name implies, this is the “compulsive” component of OCD. However, not all obsessions and compulsions are visible. Some people have only intrusive thoughts which cause strong emotional reactions, like terror. Individuals who have OCD often know that their obsessions, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts are irrational; however, they are unable to stop the cycle of OCD.

Many people believe that OCD is associated with a need for cleanliness and order. However, this is a stereotype and OCD is much more than preferring a tidy space. Individuals with OCD have widely differing symptoms when it comes to their obsessions and compulsions. Some people who have OCD may have intrusive thoughts surrounding perfectionism, while others may have a fear of contamination or germs, a fear of losing control, a fear of causing harm, or may experience obsessions and compulsions surrounding completely different triggers. It is very important to understand that OCD is a serious disorder that has a strong negative impact on the life of the person who lives with it. The obsessions and compulsions can take over a person’s daily life and/or be physically harmful. For example, a person who has a fear of contamination may be fearful that germs on their hands will cause an infection. They may then participate in compulsive hand washing. They may wash their hands so often that they use an entire bar of soap in a single day, or may use hard surface disinfectants, like bleach, in order to diminish their extreme distress. This can cause the skin on their hands to break down, becoming dry and cracked. The wounds on their hands are now an opening for germs to enter, driving the obsession over infection and the need to wash their hands more. In this way people with OCD can fall into obsessive and compulsive cycles that can be almost impossible to break free from. When the obsessions and compulsions begin to negatively affect a person's life, intervention is needed. For instance – people who have OCD may spend many hours a day participating in compulsions, which can impact their attendance and participation at school or work. The intrusive thoughts they experience may also be so strong that the individual is unable to focus on anything else, causing them to fall behind in school or jeopardize their job.

OCD is a disorder that causes extreme distress, and it's important to differentiate obsessive symptoms from “normal” behavior. Everyone has a few quirks or peculiar behaviors, but that does not mean they are obsessive or compulsive. If a person always hits the “lock” button on their car keys three times after parking just to make sure, that's not an issue, as it doesn’t impact their daily life. It might be superstitious and repetitive, but the behavior isn't harmful. If the individual starts to become late for work because the “locking ritual” has now progressed to a compulsion where every door must be repeatedly checked and they can’t concentrate because they are consistently concerned they forgot to lock a door, then it's appropriate to be concerned. It is also common to have unwanted thoughts, but if it is possible to move past them, there is usually no need for concern. For many people who have OCD, ridding themselves of these thoughts is extremely difficult and they become trapped in highly emotional obsessive cycles.

When it comes to students, OCD can make school extremely stressful. Students with OCD tend to become overwhelmed with their obsessions and compulsions, so it's important to recognize any signs early on.

What are some common signs of OCD?

  • Irrational fears that something bad will happen, intrusive thoughts (such as thinking about harming themself or others), or specific obsessions.
  • Behavior rituals and/or repetitive behaviors, such as constant checking or counting. If your student is performing an action to provide relief for an unrelated fear, this is important to take note of. For instance – a student believes that if they don't snap their fingers eleven times before a meal, they will get food poisoning. Or, another example we may see in students - “locker” rituals that eventually begin to cause tardiness (making sure the dial is at zero, spinning the combination a certain number of times, rhythmically tapping on the metal vents repeatedly to make sure it's locked, etc.).

Obsessive compulsive disorder can be an extremely debilitating condition, and it's important to recognize if your child is struggling. OCD is very treatable – a wealth of resources exist (from therapy to medication) that can be truly life-changing for individuals that suffer from this disorder. The most important thing is to recognize warning signs and talk to your kids and doctor if you notice unusual behavior. Through understanding and support, OCD can be very manageable. For more information about obsessive compulsive disorder, check out these links below:

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
https://www.intrusivethoughts.org

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