OCD SUBTYPES PART 1
The Darker Side of OCD
Hello, people! Last week we finished up our discussion on the importance of vitamin D, so I hope everyone spent a few minutes in the sun over the weekend to get a dose… gotta have it! This week, we’re starting another series on OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about OCD? It’s probably neatness, everything in its exact place, like making sure all the edges of the silverware are perfectly aligned in the drawer. Or maybe it’s repetitive hand washing, counting steps, or checking the locks on all the doors in the house. While those stereotypical obsessions are definitely common symptoms, in reality, OCD can involve any persistent, intrusive, obsessive thought that causes anxiety; it’s then generally paired with a behavior that attempts to quell that anxiety. But the scope of it can reach much further than worry over germs or counting and checking, as it is limited only by the person’s mind. Some obsessions are much darker, incorporating a person’s deepest darkest fears and worries. How about obsessing about killing your mother? All of your thoughts center on how you’d go about it, how it would feel. While these types of obsessions may be less common, they can clearly be much harder to talk about, and for that reason, can remain undiagnosed for years, even if a person seeks help. In the best case scenario, it can take an average of 14 to 17 years for people to find treatment, even though OCD usually emerges in childhood.
Think about having an obsession centering on a bodily function, let’s say swallowing. How many times do you swallow in a day, whether eating or drinking or not… ever noticed? Probably not, unless that happens to be an obsessive thought for you. Do you ever worry about the ability to swallow when you need to… do you doubt it? Can you imagine how debilitating something like that could be? And most people have more than one obsession that draws their focus. I did have a patient with OCD who thought he was Jesus, so all of his obsessions centered on that. He dressed like Jesus, wore his hair and beard like Jesus, and acted like Jesus- or how I imagine Jesus would act- with this “peace, brother” persona that he never dropped. He was court ordered, but totally harmless. The total effect was, well… honestly, kinda eerie. That could’ve been me- for some reason, it gave me flashbacks to confirmation classes as a kid. Anyhoo, he was so sure of his true identity that he would only date women named Mary. Yep. Sometimes in OCD, all of the obsessions are present in the mind at once, competing for attention, while at other times, one will take center stage, while the others wait in the wings. Depending on the year, the day, or even the minute, OCD can look completely different, even within one individual.
At its core, OCD is a disorder of doubt. A person can’t be sure that their thoughts aren’t indicative of something that may happen in real life. They can’t be sure of their safety, their intentions, their motives, or even their true realities. And yet, most people with OCD are completely, and usually painfully, aware that what they’re thinking isn’t true. For example, a person with a contamination obsession knows deep down that they don’t need to wash their hands for the 100th time, but they cannot get past the possibility that there could be germs lingering there. They’re haunted by the reality that there could be. Are those germs dangerous… could they make them sick, even kill them? That doubt is what they obsess over. So they continue to wash. When people find out what I do, at cocktail parties and the like, they’ll sometimes ask me, what’s the weirdest/ worst/ scariest symptom or diagnosis you see? Well, when it comes to OCD, there’s really no hierarchy to suffering- one obsession isn’t necessarily inherently worse than another- the worst obsession is the one that’s right now. Still, some forms of OCD are more challenging to deal with, diagnose, and treat. To start with, the content of some obsessions are so taboo that people simply won’t divulge it, so they suffer without finding the help they need. Sometimes they don’t even know that they have OCD, that that’s what’s driving these obsessive thoughts. So this week we’ll be talking about the darker side of OCD, examining some lesser known types you may have never heard of.
Before we start, a note on these subtypes. Although all forms of OCD have symptoms in common, the way these symptoms present themselves in daily life differs a lot from person to person. Usually, OCD fixates around one or more themes, and some of the most common themes are contamination, harm, checking, and perfection. The content of a person’s obsessions isn’t ultimately the important part, though it’s certainly what feels important in the moment. Someone’s subtype is really just their manifestation of symptoms- the particular way their OCD affects them. What does the mind focus on, and what thoughts and actions result from this focus? Psych geeks like me call a condition like OCD “heterogeneous” because it varies so much from one person to the next, but there are a few common “clusters” of symptoms. There’s a lot of discussion about these symptom clusters, and even more debate about whether or not they should be classified as more specific categories or subtypes. But there are clear groups of obsessions and compulsions that pop up regularly in people with OCD. Many clinicians try not to talk about subtypes because there isn’t any real research backing them. They’re not perfect categories or neat little boxes you’re supposed to fit into, so if you have OCD, it’s not worth spending too much time trying to figure out which subtype you fit into if it’s not immediately apparent. That said, for lots of folks with OCD, the immediate recognition of their own experience in a list of subtypes is a powerful thing, and may actually be the start of the treatment process.
So ultimately, I’ve chosen to go with calling these subtypes, but you can call them forms of OCD, or whatever you want, really. The point is that the symptoms seem to fall into groups naturally, and the info just needs to be out there so there’s more awareness of what lots of folks with OCD struggle with on a daily basis. Imagine that you’ve thought of yourself as truly- and totally uniquely- messed up for a long time. No way anyone has ever had the thoughts you have, or so you think. All of a sudden, you’re crusing the interwebs and see a list of symptoms that match yours exactly. Recognizing yourself in this OCD subtype, you’re not alone anymore- there are enough people like you out there to have your own type. Maybe you don’t have to feel hopeless anymore, because other people have clearly faced similar struggles, with similar types of obsessions and compulsions. There’s no realization that comes close to that kind of hope. Listing subtypes may be an imperfect way of categorizing OCD, because people may mistakenly think of them as distinct conditions rather than common manifestations of the same diagnosis, but I think it’s the way it should be. All of that said, keep in mind that there are hundreds of different ways OCD can show up in someone’s life- people don’t fit in boxes, they can have more than one subtype, and while the subtypes are relatively stable over time, they can change- new symptoms can appear and old ones might fade. Not a lot of rules when it comes to the brain’s capacity for imagination and change. So now, finally, we’ll begin discussing some unusual OCD subtypes, just to illustrate the mosaic of experiences associated with the diagnosis, and to illuminate some of what goes on in the OCD mind.
Hyperawareness OCD is an obsession with a part of the body, or with an involuntary bodily function. The patient I mentioned earlier, with the swallowing obsession, had hyperawareness OCD. It’s also called sensorimotor or somatic OCD. At any given moment, your brain, through your entire CNS, is sending and receiving signals about what different parts of your body are doing- like where your hands are, what your heart rate is, or if your stomach is empty or full. These are done subconsciously, so most people don’t pay attention to them. Everyone blinks and swallows, but very rarely do you give it any consideration. With sensorimotor OCD, a function like this can become an obsession. A person can get stuck in this place where they become hyperaware of some part of their body, or of the signal controlling it in their brain. I had a patient obsessed with blinking. Every morning, her first thought upon waking was to check to make sure she was still blinking, or still able to blink. And the thought persisted throughout the day… am I blinking now? It was consuming her life, not only was it the first thing she thought about, but also the last. She even kept herself awake with it, because she would close her eyes to sleep and would have to open them and make sure she could still blink.
When anyone starts to think about things like involuntary processes- even for people without OCD- they can become heightened. If thinking about “it” makes it happen, and if “it” happening makes you think about it… well, you can see how easily this could lead to an obsession in the mind. To make matters worse, a lot of the anxiety in OCD lies in the person’s fear that they’ll never stop thinking about the blinking or swallowing, or whatever the obsession may be. And of course, the more they monitor it, the more they try to control it, the less automatic it feels, the more controlled it feels, and the more it seems like they’re never going to stop thinking about it. It’s a never ending cycle, and it produces a lot of other obsessions like, what if this drives me crazy, what if I never stop, if I’m permanently distracted by it? And in fact, my blinking patient also had a tendency for projection, so she imagined obsessing over blinking for the rest. of. her. life… ife… ife… ife…. I should point out that I make light of it, because one of the ways to combat an obsession is, oddly enough, to examine it in detail, so that includes looking at the futility of obsessing over an automatic bodily process that you cannot control… forever. It sounds counterintuitive, but dealing with it that way is a form of mindfulness- for those of you who read my blog on that many moons ago- examining whatever the thought may be, and the body part it involves, in an effort to soothe and assure. It can’t control it, but it can help lead to acceptance of the thought, which can take away its power.
While sensorimotor OCD is relatively rare, in addition to blinking, the top three obsessions also include swallowing and breathing; but it can focus on the function of literally any part of the body. It can even involve non-functional parts, like the location of a mole or freckle, or hyperawareness of normal occurrences like itching or heart rate. As you can imagine, it can be very debilitating and isolating. My swallowing patient had a very hard time eating in front of anyone- these obsessions tend to be very self-propagating- and she was too anxious over being anxious about her swallowing. And it’s very difficult to talk about these symptoms, even with a therapist or a shrink, so unfortunately, people really suffer. It’s easier to just keep it simple and tell people that you have OCD and let them think you spend all your time straightening silverware or washing your hands, rather than risk being judged for the other manifestations. It’s a tough situation- while I understand it may be easier, it’s not necessarily better in the end. Some clinicians don’t understand sensorimotor OCD, or recognize that people with it have compulsions. Compulsions are the actions or rituals the person is basically “required” to complete in order to make the obsession, and therefore the resulting anxiety, stop. For instance, in contamination OCD, the obsession is germ exposure, and the compulsion is the continual hand washing. But in sensorimotor OCD, the compulsions are there, but they’re just not obvious. It’s more about the mental rituals taking place in sensorimotor, like reviewing or checking to see how that bodily sensation feels, or maybe trying to actively replace the obsessive thought with another thought.
Given the lack of understanding, one of the biggest barriers to treatment is the isolation that the patients feel. Meds are helpful, and there are specially licensed therapists for treating serious OCD. Regardless of the subtype, treatment essentially the same. The gold standard of treatment is exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP, which is sort of a combined approach. I’ll talk more about that later, but as with anything else, acceptance is key. If you’re a person that thinks about blinking, then you’re a person that thinks about blinking. Hopefully treatment stops that, but if it doesn’t, are you going to let it run your life? Once there’s acceptance, that then becomes the question, as opposed to being concerned about it. That’s where mindfulness comes in. If you pay attention to your blinking, then that’s one thing, but if you’re worried about it, that’s kind of pointless. You’ve proven you’re doing it right, and that your blink isn’t broken, about 18 times in the last minute alone. Did you know that that’s the average number of times a person blinks in one minute, 18? Sounds like a lot. Anyway, there’s a difference between watching your behavior in a mindful way, and not trying to change it, versus actively thinking about it and trying to figure out if you’re doing it the “right” way. Personal acceptance of anything means being less judgmental about the internal experience of it. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier said than done. There shouldn’t be any trivializing how upsetting it would be to think about blinking, or swallowing, or where a mole is. These things may seem banal to you, but they may be the center around which another person’s life revolves. When you think about accepting anything, but especially OCD, maybe just ask yourself, what would my patient Jesus do?
Next week… more OCD subtypes! I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting, and of course, educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
What is OCD?
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