Everyone has intrusive thoughts. They arise involuntarily and out of the blue and can be upsetting, worrying, offensive, bizarre or violent. For most of us, these thoughts are fleeting and, even if they make us stop for a second to wonder why we had them, they are easy to dismiss and we dismiss them.

Some people find it impossible to ignore their intrusive thoughts. They dwell on them and this, in turn, makes the thoughts occur more frequently, and become increasingly distressing, causing great anxiety. The thoughts might then become obsessive or compulsive and, if the person can’t distinguish between them and the sort of intrusive thoughts we all have, they can lead into obsessive or compulsive urges which, if they are not controlled, turn into obsessive or compulsive behaviour.

So, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety-related condition. It affects about 12 people in every 1,000 which, in the UK, means about a quarter of a million people, half of whom will have a severe form of the illness. It is indiscriminate, affecting people of any age, gender and socio-economic group though it most often emerges in men during their adolescence and women in their early twenties. David Beckham, Cameron Diaz and Megan Fox are understood to suffer from OCD.

A common misunderstanding of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is that it manifests itself as compulsive or repetitive hand washing or checking about locking up or turning off lights. That is how it affects some people but, for many, it can be more complicated.

The obsessive or intrusive thoughts “which can be about themselves or someone significant to them“ can themselves be seriously debilitating, overwhelming people’s minds and preventing them from getting on with their lives. Although it is usual for people with OCD to be aware of their obsessive thoughts, and know that they are not rational, they believe there is only one way to relieve the anxiety they cause and that is by performing rituals. Those rituals might be physical or mental but they seldom bring anything other than very short-term relief; usually they reinforce the obsession or compulsion making it worse. Nor do these rituals solve the perceived problem “whatever is at the heart of their obsessive or compulsive thought“ which can add to their anxiety.

Most people with OCD will usually be able to continue functioning in other respects. They continue to perform at work, at home and socially though their OCD is likely to increase in intensity at times of greater stress or anxiety. A minority will, however, find that it takes over their lives.

The good news is that it is eminently treatable and it is highly likely that someone with OCD will recover fully; at worst, treatment will enable them to manage their illness and its symptoms so they can get on with their daily lives.

The most effective treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT); some people might benefit from CBT and medication, depending on the severity of their OCD. CBT is the most effective of the talking therapies because it involves the person to look at themselves as they are now, helping them think differently (that’s the cognitive aspect) while challenging their beliefs by working through behavioural exercises. CBT relies on the person being fully engaged in the process which also contributes to them focussing less on their obsessive or compulsive thoughts and behaviour.

If you or someone you know seems to be affected by OCD and would like to find out more about it, do look at the OCD UK website.  If you or they would like to explore treatment by CBT counselling in London or Twickenham, do get in touch.

OCD is likely to be in the news over the next few weeks in the run up to the first-ever OCD Awareness Week which runs from 10th to 16th October 2011 so, in our next blog, we will continue with them by outlining the ways in which OCD expresses itself.