Freaky Phobias, part deux
Hello, people- I hope everyone had a great weekend! Last week, I introduced the subject of phobias, and we’ll continue that discussion today. Fear is an important evolutionary tool, allowing humans to survive dangerous encounters and develop appropriate responses to hazardous situations. But when fear becomes debilitating, when it becomes a greater threat than the actual person, place, or thing causing it, it has become a phobia. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder where a person has a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity, or situation. That leaves the field pretty much wide open, and in fact, a person can have a phobia of almost anything. They’ll try very hard to avoid that thing, otherwise they’re basically forced to white knuckle through it with much anxiety and distress, potentially to the point that it produces physical symptoms like nausea and dizziness, and possibly even a panic attack.
Everyone has something they fear to some extent, and for most people, it doesn’t affect one’s quality of life. But for patients with diagnosable phobias, the level of fear and discomfort when confronted with specific objects or situations can be exceptional, and can significantly impact their daily life. Some phobias are very specific, so this limits the impact the phobia has. As an example, a person may only fear spiders and cats- meaning they have arachnophobia and ailurophobia- and so they live relatively free of anxiety simply by avoiding spiders and cats. But some phobias pose an issue in a wider variety of places and situations, so they affect people’s lives more drastically. For example, symptoms of acrophobia- the fear of heights- can be triggered by looking out the window of a high rise office building, by climbing a ladder, or by driving over a tall bridge, just to name a few. Because it comes into play in so many places and forms, acrophobia has a much greater impact on the person’s life, and it may influence or even dictate the person’s employment type, job location, driving route, recreational and social activities, and/ or home environment.
Cause and Risk Factors
There is always an argument about whether a particular psychological trait or symptom is genetic in origin or a product of one’s environment… the old “nature vs. nurture” debate. Most of the time, the proper answer is “both,” and in fact, that’s the case with phobias. The reasons why phobias develop aren’t fully understood, but research does indicate that both genetic and environmental factors play a role.
Specific phobias tend to begin in childhood, a time when developing brains are still learning appropriate ways to respond to the world around them, and phobias can start in any number of ways. A child may develop a phobia of dogs after being bitten by one, but there are many more subtle ways that a child’s brain can take in information that teaches them to fear something. For example, they could learn to fear a dog by watching a movie that features a scary dog, or by watching a family member respond in fear to a dog’s bark or presence. Ultimately, fear is easily passed from one person to the next, either through watching and learning, or through genetic inheritance.
Certain phobias have been clearly linked to a very bad first encounter with the feared object or situation, though researchers don’t know if this first encounter is required, or if phobias can simply occur in people who are more likely to have them. As to what makes a person more likely to have them, there is no phobia gene- it’s never that easy- but we know that when it comes to risk factors, there is a genetic component. Research and surveys indicate that individuals with a parent or a close relative suffering from a specific phobia are three times more likely to develop that same phobia. That said, more research is needed to elucidate the genes responsible for triggering these phobias.
In addition to a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors, a person’s temperament can also contribute to risk of developing phobias. A negative affect, meaning a propensity to feel negative emotions such as disgust, anger, fear, or guilt, seems to increase the risk for a variety of anxiety disorders, including specific phobias. Behavioral inhibition, often due to parental overprotectiveness, especially in childhood, is another risk factor for phobia development. A history of physical and/ or sexual abuse also increases the likelihood of an individual developing a specific phobia.
Phobias can be debilitating, but fortunately, there are ways to treat them. One treatment method that’s used very successfully is exposure therapy. We’ve discussed this before in relation to OCD; it’s a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, aka CBT, whereby you are repeatedly presented with your phobic trigger in a controlled manner, and you challenge yourself to get through it. It’s done in the presence of a therapist, and they essentially talk you through it, discussing what you feel, why you feel it, what is happening, and what you fear may happen. Afterwards, there’s usually discussion about feared outcome versus actual outcome, and what thoughts helped you get through the exposure. It’s often done in stages, as opposed to jumping straight in the deep end. For example, let’s say you have an insect phobia; you might start by just thinking about an insect, then move to looking at a picture of one, and then maybe being close to one in a terrarium, and eventually, even holding a living one.
Anxiety reduction techniques may also be helpful in combating phobias, things like yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness. The ultimate goal is to be mindful of the trigger, as opposed to afraid of the trigger. Unfortunately, the majority of patients don’t seek treatment for phobias, and of those who do, many don’t follow through. As a result, only 20% percent of people recover completely from them; the majority of people experience a recurrence of their phobia, which is referred to as a relapse. Captain Obvious says if you have a phobia, your best bet is to get the help of a medical professional for treatment.
It might (but really shouldn’t) surprise you to hear that celebrities have phobias too. Just for funsies, here are a few I found while surfing the interwebs.
Tyra Banks has been very open about her long standing fear of dolphins. She doesn’t swim in the ocean, because she imagines them swimming near her and touching her legs.
Christina Ricci has a fear of indoor plants, botanophobia, and says that touching a dirty houseplant feels like torture.
Khloe Kardashian has a phobia of belly buttons. Her half sister Kendall Jenner revealed that she struggles with trypophobia, an aversion to the sight of holes. She says that pancakes, honeycomb, and lotus heads are too much for her to take.
Nicole Kidman has been deathly afraid of butterflies since childhood, and would do anything to avoid having to go through the front gate of her home if even one butterfly was sitting on it.
Jennifer Aniston has a serious fear of being underwater, due to a traumatic experience she had as a child.
Billy Bob Thornton has a fear of antiques; according to him “…old, mildewy French/English/Scottish stuff, dusty heavy drapes and big tables with carved lions’ heads…” creeps him out.
Oprah Winfrey has an intense dislike for chewing gum that goes back to her childhood days. Growing up poor, her grandmother used to try to save gum to chew more than once, so she put it on the bedpost, or stuck it on the cabinet for later. Apparently little Oprah used to bump into it, and it would rub up against her, and gross her out. Evidently, she even barred gum-chewing in her offices.
Kyra Sedgwick is apparently terrified of talking food. Her husband, Kevin Bacon, actually had to turn down an apparently lucrative offer to be featured in ads for M&M’s for fear that she would leave him.
Katie Holmes has a longtime fear of raccoons, and once barked at one in an effort to scare it away. It worked… it left, but her phobia stayed.
Jake Gyllenhaal developed a phobia of ostriches while filming “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” after the animal trainers warned him not to make any noise around them, because “they’ll tear out your eyes and rip out your heart.”
Helen Mirren has a fear of phones, and evidently never returns calls because the phone makes her so nervous.
One of Channing Tatum’s biggest fears is porcelain dolls. Yep, Magic Mike is afraid of dolls.
Tyrese Gibson has no problem performing stunts in action movies, but he won’t get near an owl for any amount of money.
Singer Adele has a serious fear of seagulls after a scary incident in her childhood, when one flew in and swiped an ice cream she was eating. Its claw scratched her shoulder, leaving physical- and emotional- scars.
Megan Fox can’t stand the feeling of dry paper, so when she reads through scripts, she constantly licks her finger to keep it wet.
Alfred Hitchcock lived with ovophobia, the fear of eggs. People who worked with him claimed cracking an egg made him gag, and he once told a reporter “…Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid?”
Actor, producer, and musician Johnny Depp has a phobia hat trick- three phobias- clowns, spiders, and ghosts.
Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has a phobia of people with a long second toe, to the point that it influences his dating life. He must see the toe on the first date… it’s mandatory. He may not go for a kiss, but he’s definitely going to check out that second toe, to see if it’s too long.
Ellen Page has a phobia of tennis balls, and can’t even watch a tennis match on television.
Kristen Bell is afraid of pruney fingers, specifically the feeling of pruney fingers on normal skin, and even wears gloves when she goes in the water to avoid touching herself with her own pruney fingers.
Some fun phobia facts…
In the United States, approximately 19 million people suffer from various phobias, with varying levels of severity.
The prevalence of phobias is approximately 5% in children, 16% in teenagers, and 3% to 5% in adults.
Women are nearly twice as likely to be affected by a phobia as men are, but men are more likely to seek treatment for phobias.
Symptoms of phobias tend to begin in early to mid childhood, with the average age of onset being about 7 years old.
While specific phobias usually begin in childhood, their incidence peaks during midlife and old age.
Phobias can persist for several years, decades, or be present throughout one’s life in 10% to 30% of cases.
The presence of a phobia is strongly predictive for the onset of other anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders.
Specific phobias can and do affect people of all ages, backgrounds, and/ or socioeconomic classes.
A part of the brain called the amygdala is responsible for triggering specific phobias.
There are approximately 400 specific phobias, and new ones are added to the list as necessary. Some are rare, unusual, or downright weird. Here are a few of those.
Ablutophobia, fear of bathing
This phobia can sometimes be the result of a traumatic, water-related incident, especially if it involves bathing during juvenile years, though many sufferers will grow out of this phobia as they get older. This phobia can cause a great deal of social anxiety and friction as it can often result in unpleasant body odor.
Anatidaephobia, fear of being watched by a duck
This is funny, but it’s for real. People with this phobia fear that no matter where they are, or what they’re doing, a duck is watching them. Not a hen, not a rabbit, specifically a duck, like Daffy.
Arachibutyrophobia, fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.
While this may sound like a minor issue, this phobia likely stems from a fear of choking or inability to open one’s mouth. While some sufferers may be able to eat small amounts of peanut butter, especially if it’s not very sticky, many will not eat peanut butter at all for fear of it sticking to the roof of their mouth.
Arithmophobia, fear of math
While plenty of people hated math class, arithmophobia takes this anxiety to the next level. This phobia isn’t so much a fear of numbers or symbols, as it is a fear of being forced into a situation where one has to do math, especially if that person’s math skills are subpar.
Chirophobia, fear of hands
This phobia can be a fear of one’s own hands or another’s. This is often the result of a traumatic event like a severe hand injury, or a persistent condition like arthritis.
Chloephobia, fear of newspapers
This phobia is often connected to the touch, sound, and smell of newspaper. Sufferers may become anxious at the sound of a rustling newspaper, or from the smell of newspaper ink and paper.
Eisoptrophobia, fear of mirrors
Sometimes referred to as spectrophobia or catoptrophobia, sufferers are often unable to look at themselves in a mirror. In more severe cases, this anxiety can even extend to reflective surfaces like glass or standing water. One genesis of this phobia revolves around the superstitions tied to mirrors, the fear of seeing something supernatural or breaking a mirror and being cursed with bad luck. In other cases, this phobia can stem from low self-esteem and an aversion to seeing oneself.
Geniophobia, fear of chins
This one sounds a little unreal, because how can anyone fear a chin, but people with this phobia have an aversion to chins, and cannot interact or look at people whose chins bother them. It’s unclear if this is all chins or Jay Leno chins…
Genuphobia, fear of knees or kneeling
People who have this phobia have a fear of knees, their own and/ or someone else’s. This gives me flashbacks to confirmation classes, with all the kneeling, aka genuflecting.
Globophobia, fear of balloons
This phobia often originates from a traumatic event, often when a popping balloon causes a scare at a young age. Sufferers of this phobia can have varying levels of anxiety, with some casually avoiding balloons, while other, more severe cases are prohibited from being anywhere near a balloon. Globophobia is also often linked to the fear of clowns, coulrophobia.
Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia- I kid you not- is the phobia of long words. Of course a 15 syllable word represents this fear…can people with it even say what they’re afraid of? Hmmm…
Omphalophobia, fear of belly buttons
Just like Khloe Kardashian! Sufferers will often avoid areas like the beach, where exposed belly buttons are common. This phobia can be the result of a previous infection in the umbilicus, but can also just be random. In severe cases, sufferers may cover up their own belly button with tape or a bandaid. Interestingly, this phobia may be related to trypophobia, the fear of holes that Kendall Jenner, Khloe Kardashian’s half sister has… hello, genetics!
Optophobia, fear of opening your eyes
This phobia is generally the result of a traumatic event, especially during childhood. This phobia can be extremely debilitating, as sufferers will often avoid leaving their homes, and naturally seek out dark or dimly lit areas.
Nomophobia, fear of not having your cell phone
This is an anxiety that so many people feel to varying extents, but it becomes a phobia when the anxiety turns into a consistent fear or panic at the mere thought of being without a mobile phone. This phobia also extends to having a phone with a dead battery or being out of service, thereby making the phone unusable. Someone with nomophobia will feel intense anxiety if they have no phone signal, have run out of data or battery power, or even if their phone is out of sight. Nomophpia is often connected with an addiction to phones and the need to be constantly connected. A recent study showed that many people under the age of 30 check their phone at least once every 10 minutes- 96 times a day- so this is far more common than you can imagine.
Plutophobia, fear of wealth
This phobia deals less with the fear of physical monetary currency and more with the anxiety around wealth or being wealthy. Sufferers dread the responsibility and weight that accompanies wealth, and fear that they will be targeted for their wealth, and subsequently put into danger. They may even sabotage their career or money-making opportunities in an attempt to avoid feeling it.
Pogonophobia, fear of facial hair
This fear is often the result of a traumatic experience with someone who has significant facial hair or a beard. Beards also partially hide someone’s face, creating an additional layer of anxiety for those that struggle in social situations, or reading social cues. In more severe cases, a sufferer of pogonophobia may not even be able to look at a picture of someone with a beard.
Sanguivoriphobia, fear of vampires
Sufferers have a fear of vampires and blood eaters. In fact, the word literally translates to ‘fear of blood eaters’. At least people with this won’t have to sit through the torture of the Twilight movie series.
Somniphobia, fear of falling asleep
While some people just can’t do without their regular eight hours a night, sufferers of this phobia may associate going to bed with dying, or fear losing time while asleep.
Turophobia, fear of cheese
A fear of cheese can often be traced back to an incident with cheese, especially in early childhood. Being forced to eat cheese, especially when lactose intolerant, can create an aversion to, and anxiety towards, cheese. More severe cases can even result in fear just from the sight or smell of cheese.
Xanthophobia, fear of the color yellow
This is a difficult phobia to deal with, as some things in nature and many man made things are yellow. Sufferers may fear something seemingly benign like a flower, school bus, or wheel of cheese. This phobia could be an artifact, originating from survival-based evolution, as animals that are brightly colored, like frogs or snakes, are sometimes poisonous or venomous.
That’s a good place to end for this week, before everyone develops bibliophobia, the fear of reading! I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and 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 officeand on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Hello, people! Last week, we finished up our discussion on the darker side of OCD and talked about the most difficult subtype to deal with, the pure hell of pure obsession OCD, aka Pure O. As promised, we’re back this week with a new topic, N-acetyl Cysteine, or NAC. NAC is an amino acid used by the body to build antioxidants. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that protect and repair the body’s cells from damage, usually referred to as oxidative stress. Historically, NAC has been used mainly in emergency rooms to treat people who overdose on acetaminophen… I’ve ordered it innumerable times for this very purpose. These days, it can be purchased as a supplement OTC, and new studies have begun investigating its effectiveness as both a stand-alone and adjunctive treatment for depressed mood associated with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, and trichotillomania, as well as abuse and dependence on nicotine, Cannabis, and cocaine. And it has shown some promising results.
Before we get to that, let’s talk about some things NAC does in the body.
1. NAC is essential for making the body’s most powerful antioxidant, glutathione. Along with two other amino acids- glutamine and glycine- NAC is needed to make and replenish glutathione, which helps neutralize free radicals that can cause oxidative stress- damage to cells and tissues in your body. It’s essential for immune health and for fighting cellular damage, and some researchers believe it may even contribute to longevity. Its antioxidant properties are also important for combatting numerous other ailments caused by oxidative stress, such as heart disease, infertility, and some psychiatric conditions. More on those later.
2. NAC helps detoxify the body to prevent or diminish kidney and liver damage, helping to prevent deleterious side effects of drugs and environmental toxins. This is why doctors regularly give intravenous NAC to people with acetaminophen overdose. It’s usually organ failure that gets you in acetaminophen overdose, and NAC helps to prevent or reduce damage to the kidneys and liver, increasing the chances of survival. NAC also has applications for other liver diseases due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
3. NAC helps regulate levels of glutamate, the most important neurotransmitter in your brain, and this may improve some psych disorders and addictive behavior. While glutamate is required for normal brain function, excess glutamate paired with glutathione depletion can cause brain damage. This state- excess glutamate with glutathione depletion- is commonly seen in certain psych disorders; specifically, it’s thought to contribute to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addictive behavior.
For people with bipolar disease and depression, NAC may help decrease symptoms and improve overall ability to function, and research suggests that it may also play a role in treating moderate to severe OCD. In addition, an animal study implied that NAC may minimize the so-called negative effects of schizophrenia, such as social withdrawal, apathy, and reduced attention span. NAC supplements can also help decrease withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse in cocaine addicts, and preliminary studies show that NAC may decrease marijuana and nicotine use and cravings. Many of these disorders currently have limited or ineffective treatment options, so NAC may be an effective option for individuals with these conditions. More on this in a moment.
4. NAC can help relieve symptoms of respiratory conditions by acting as an antioxidant and expectorant, loosening mucus in the air passageways. As an antioxidant, NAC helps replenish glutathione levels in your lungs, and reduces inflammation in the bronchial tubes and lung tissue. People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) experience long-term oxidative damage and inflammation of lung tissue, which causes airways to constrict, leading to shortness of breath and coughing. NAC supplements have been used to improve these COPD symptoms, leading to fewer exacerbations and less overall lung decline. In a one-year study, 600 mg of NAC twice a day significantly improved lung function and symptoms in people with stable COPD. But those with chronic bronchitis can also benefit from NAC. Bronchitis is the term for when the mucous membranes in your lungs’ bronchial passageways become inflamed, restricting airflow to the lungs. Not much fun. By thinning the mucus in the bronchial tubes, while also boosting glutathione levels, NAC may help decrease the severity and frequency of wheezing and coughing in respiratory attacks. In addition to relieving COPD and bronchitis, NAC may improve other lung and respiratory tract conditions like cystic fibrosis, asthma, and pulmonary fibrosis, as well as symptoms of garden variety nasal and sinus congestion due to allergies or infections. Ultimately, NAC’s antioxidant and expectorant capacity can improve lung function in everyone by decreasing inflammation and breaking up and clearing out mucus.
5. NAC boosts brain health by regulating glutamate and replenishing glutathione. The neurotransmitter glutamate is involved in a broad range of learning, behavior, and memory actions, while the antioxidant glutathione helps reduce oxidative damage to brain cells associated with aging. Glutamate levels are subject to the three bears law: you need some, but too much isn’t good, as it’s an excitatory neurotransmitter. Because NAC helps regulate glutamate levels and replenish glutathione, it may benefit those with brain and memory ailments. The neurological disorder Alzheimer’s disease slows down a person’s learning and memory capacity, and animal studies suggest that NAC may slow the loss of cognitive ability in people with it. Another brain condition, Parkinson’s disease, is characterized by the deterioration of cells that generate the neurotransmitter dopamine. Oxidative damage to cells, and a decrease in antioxidant ability, contribute to this disease, and NAC supplements appear to improve dopamine function as well as disease symptoms, such as tremor.
6. NAC may improve fertility in both men and women. Approximately 15% of all couples trying to conceive are affected by infertility, and in nearly half of these cases, male infertility is the main contributing factor. Many male infertility issues increase when antioxidant levels are insufficient to combat free radical formation in the male reproductive system, leading to oxidative stress and cell death, culminating in reduced fertility. In some cases, NAC has been shown to combat this, improving male fertility. One condition that contributes to male infertility is varicocele. This is when veins inside the scrotum become enlarged due to free radical damage; surgery is currently the primary treatment. In one study, 35 men with varicocele were given 600 mg of NAC per day for three months post-surgery. The combination of surgery and NAC supplement improved semen integrity and partner pregnancy rate by 22% as compared to the control group with surgery alone. Another study in 468 men with infertility found that supplementing with 600 mg of NAC and 200 mcg of selenium for 26 weeks improved semen quality. Researchers suggested that this combined NAC/ selenium supplement should be considered as a treatment option for male infertility. In addition, NAC may improve fertility in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) by inducing or augmenting the ovulation cycle which is altered by the condition.
7. NAC may stabilize blood sugar by decreasing inflammation in fat cells. High blood sugar and obesity contribute to inflammation in fat tissue. This can lead to damage or destruction of insulin receptors, which puts you at a much higher risk of type 2 diabetes. When insulin receptors are intact and healthy, they properly remove sugar from your blood, keeping levels within normal limits. When the insulin receptors are damaged, blood sugar levels are more difficult to control. Animal studies show that NAC may stabilize blood sugar by decreasing inflammation in fat cells, keeping receptors happy, and thereby improving insulin resistance. That said, human research on NAC is needed to confirm these effects on blood sugar control.
8. NAC may reduce heart disease risk by preventing oxidative damage. Oxidative damage is caused by free radicals, and this type of damage to heart tissue often leads to heart disease, causing strokes, heart attacks, and other serious cardiovascular conditions.
NAC may reduce heart disease risk by reducing oxidative damage to tissues in the heart. It has also been shown to increase nitric oxide production, which helps veins dilate, improving blood flow. This expedites circulation and blood transit back to your heart, and this can lower the risk of heart attack. Interestingly, a test-tube study showed that when combined with green tea, another well recognized antioxidant, NAC appears to reduce damage from oxidized “bad” LDL cholesterol, another bigtime contributor to heart disease.
9. NAC and its ability to boost glutathione levels appears to increase immune function, boosting immune health. Research on certain diseases associated with NAC and glutathione deficiency suggests that immune function might be improved, and potentially even restored, by supplementing with NAC.
This has been studied mostly in people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In two studies, supplementing with NAC resulted in a significant increase in immune function, with an almost complete restoration of natural killer cells, the main patrol cells. High levels of NAC in the body may also suppress HIV-1 reproduction. A test-tube study indicated that in other immune-compromised situations, such as the flu, NAC may hamper the virus’s ability to replicate; this could potentially reduce the symptoms and lifespan of the associated viral illness. Other test-tube studies have similarly linked NAC to cancer cell death and blocked cancer cell replication. Great news, but more human studies are needed.
This is a short blog, but that’s a good place to stop for this week. Next week, we’ll talk about how NAC may alleviate the symptoms of multiple psychiatric disorders, as well as reduce addictive behavior; and we’ll talk about some preliminary study findings as well. I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and 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!
The Dark Side of OCD
Hello, people~ welcome back to the blog! The last few installments, we’ve been talking about some of the more unusual subtypes or presentations of OCD. Last week, I told you about POCD, pedophilia OCD. This is a devastating harm based subtype that causes people to worry that they might be attracted to children, and could potentially act on that attraction. To reiterate, these are not predators that actually want to harm or molest children. They are simply- or not so simply- obsessed with the idea that they could. Somewhere along the line, that becomes locked in their brain due to the OCD, and they worry about it incessantly. As a result, they avoid all contact with children, and this can have a huge impact on family dynamics. It causes a great deal of shame and guilt for the person who has it, as they fear being judged by others, while always judging themselves very harshly. And it can also be very damaging to the children in that person’s life, since they miss out on the time and affection that person would have otherwise devoted to them. As you can imagine, all of these things often lead to a great deal of anxiety and depression, and many times, people with POCD suffer through it alone. This week, we’ll be continuing the series with a look at perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a pretty self-explanatory subtype, the obsession with appearing and being “perfect.” Perfectionism is kind of an unusual trait. It isn’t unique to OCD; not all perfectionists have OCD, and not all people with OCD are obsessed with being perfect. But perfectionism underlies many OCD subtypes, as it can contribute to the need to do a ritual perfectly, or have things arranged just right. But when it’s extreme, perfectionism can really be thought of as its own OCD subtype; when it’s rooted in obsession(s), followed by compulsion(s), and causes dysfunction in the person’s life, it falls into a class of its own.
Perfectionism can look very different from person to person, but there are some common overarching themes. Perfectionists feel the need to follow rules very rigidly. I’m sure you’ve heard the addage “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Some versions end with “well,” but this isn’t strictly true for perfectionists, it must be right. Things must be done in a certain way- perfectly- or not at all. This is tough to live up to at best, and the pressure to achieve this standard can become so great, that at times it’s far easier to give up on doing something altogether. In addition, perfectionists generally need to feel that they are in control of a situation at all times. By definition, they are excessively concerned with making mistakes, especially when other people could potentially see those mistakes. Ultimately, they think that these errors have some bearing on their overall value as a person, that they define them. They also tend to have an overwhelming need to please others. As a result, relationships with authority figures- people like bosses and parents- can be fraught with anxiety. Perfectionists also have trouble with prioritizing. They can’t make a list of five things they want to accomplish, and then decide which to give 100 percent effort to, 80 percent, and 50 percent. That doesn’t work for them, it’s very all or nothing. Every time they came across a task, whether it’s a strength of theirs or a weakness, whether they have expertise in it or not, they always feel like they must perform it at a high level.
There’s nothing wrong with doing things well, or with being very diligent and detail oriented. These are great qualities, and they work well for people, when they’re functional qualities. But when it gets in the way of getting things done- when it becomes dysfunctional- it’s a problem. I had a patient that was a student, a freshman in college, and he loved school. He was all about it, very intelligent, studied a lot, and worked so hard on papers and projects. Too hard as it turns out. He would begin a lab write up or a paper, but would edit as he wrote. He would then write more, then edit that; then he’d try to stitch them together and get frustrated. Ultimately, he’d have to start all over again. It just went on and on in this way, and it took him forever to do a very simple write up. Something that took his peers maybe a couple of hours tops would take him days of work, because it was nearly impossible for him to write it start to finish, then edit start to finish, a reasonable number of times. There was never an end point- he always felt it needed to be better- and was compelled to improve on it, so sometimes he simply couldn’t finish things. His brain just didn’t want to let him.
Many years ago, I worked with young children in a hospital setting, with a wide array of diagnoses. One young girl, about nine years old, would undoubtedly have a diagnosis of perfectionism. I remember her very well, but her parents made an especially unique impression. When I gave them my assessment, it was quite clear that her being a perfectionist wasn’t a problem for them- this was written all over their faces. The mother especially, she had a little smile, almost of satisfaction or even pride. It was like I was telling them it was a good thing, or maybe too much of a good thing, like having too much money. She was a great student, very precocious, and a great kid, very meticulous. But if she did something imperfectly, if it didn’t meet her standards- which I suspect she may have learned from her mom, or her mom had a hand in planting- it was a problem. She would begin something with such enthusiasm, which was so great to see given her anxiety; but once she realized the task wasn’t going to be up to par, she would just give up and shut down. It was like watching a bright beautiful flower wilt and wither right in front of you. A sad thing at nine years of age.
This is basically a form of avoidance, which is a common compulsion for perfectionists. Better to totally blow something off than to not do it perfectly. Another example of this is something my student patient would do. If he was late for class, he couldn’t bring himself to go in. If he could see from the window that the professor had already started lecturing, and the students were all sitting there, facing front and listening, he would imagine how it would feel to open the door, and have all those heads turn to look at him. He couldn’t take that, everyone seeing his screw up, so he just wouldn’t go, he’d skip class. Then the next class, he was so concerned about showing his face after missing the previous one, it had a tendency to snowball. Even though he was smart and worked very hard, between his lack of participation in class and his issues in completing tasks, he ended up receiving poor grades, or even failing classes, with shocking regularity.
Perfectionism is difficult for those with it to gain insight about, because it’s so engrained within their personality. They like to be focused, discerning, fastidious, and detail oriented. Sometimes it works well for them, but when it works against them, it takes much longer to realize it. All of this makes it hard to treat. Despite the suffering it causes, many times, patients initially resist the idea of abandoning their ways completely. And I get that. Some elements of perfectionism backfire, but there are parts that are beneficial, that help people reach their goals. You don’t want to necessarily eradicate it from their lives altogether, throw the baby out with the bathwater. I understand the hesitation. Somewhere in the dysfunction is function. In my student patient’s case, there were times he got A’s on papers. It took him 40 hours instead of two, but the end result was good, no argument there. So how do you find the happy medium, how do you eliminate the dys- from the functional in treatment? We want people to work hard, to be attentive, accurate, and competent. In treating it, and designing exposures, we don’t want to make a person act stupidly or underperform- proofing and editing is good if you don’t want to send out a paper to your professor, or letter to your boss, filled with typos. That would be nearly impossible to get them to do anyway, even if it was designed as an exposure to treat them. We don’t want to weed out the good parts, or necessarily challenge the outcome or the goal, but we need to challenge how they’re getting there. In the case of my student patient, the exposure would be to write without editing, start to finish, one draft, even if there were mistakes. Other ideas would be to show assignments to other people before they’re turned in, as well as to put max time limits on how long a project can take. Practice doing things well, instead of perfectly, to help them see that they can in fact deal with imperfection. That’s the true reality anyway- nothing is ever perfect. If you want perfection, to the point that you reject anything less than that, you’re going to end up rejecting things you shouldn’t, and missing out on a lot in the bargain.
That makes me think of a book about OCD by Judith Rapoport called The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing. It’s about a law school student with contamination obsessions that agonized over cleaning his apartment. He obsessed about how long the cleaning would take, and especially about how quickly it would get dirty again. He eventually started to avoid going home, so that its cleanliness would be maintained; it wouldn’t be disturbed by the messiness of his living in it. This escalated to the point that he wound up sleeping on a park bench, willingly homeless, all to avoid his apartment. This might seem radically counterintuitive. How could a person with contamination obsessions- who’s afraid of germs- stand to sleep outside, in a park, with all the dirt that goes with it, all for the sake of cleanliness? This is the dark side of OCD when you have perfectionism.
I was thinking about positive perfectionism, and out of curiosity, read about the top career choices for perfectionists. Clearly, positive perfectionism can give a person a set of traits that can help them excel in life, especially in certain careers. Accuracy, attention to detail, persistence, conscientiousness, and organization lend themselves well to roles where design, math, and very complex procedures are essential to their tasks. Mechanics, inspectors, accountants, surveyors, tailors, and engineers would be top choices. Artists and creative types seem to suffer the most from perfectionism. Claude Monet, the highly celebrated French Impressionist, was a perfectionist… the perfectionist impressionist! I read that he was set for an exhibition in May of 1908, featuring his newest works, the result of three years of work. But when he took his final look, he decided the paintings weren’t good enough. Amid great protests, he took a knife and a paint brush to the paintings- worth $100,000 at the time- defacing them irrevocably. Today, they would be priceless. His actions prompted all sorts of ethics discussions; should an artist have the right to destroy his own work? Evidently at least one expert thought so, and actually praised him for being a true “arteest” and told the New York Times, “It is a pity, perhaps, that some other painters do not do the same.” A similar, but more tragic story is told in a book from 1886 called L’œuvre, translated as The Masterpiece. It tells the story of another artist who becomes obsessed with creating a large canvas that he worked on incessantly, but it never satisfies him. He kept painting on more and more layers, to the point that the canvas was destroyed. Then he would start over, again and again. He became so distraught and depressed that eventually, he went insane.
So how do you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism? The difference is when you move from a detail oriented, conscientious place, to a rigid and controlling one. When the ideas of perfection prevent you from doing anything at all, a healthy sense of perfectionism has been taken over by a dysfunctional one; putting you in a place where mistakes are catastrophic, where they say something about you, where you have to live up to other people’s expectations. This induces such anxiety that it becomes crippling, because eventually everything needs to be perfect- even things that other people would never even notice start needing to be perfect. Once again, the pressure from that becomes so intense, it’s easier to just forget it, to give in altogether. But in my view, the only way to truly fail at something is to not try at all. If you fail at something, it’s not because you’re not perfect, but because you didn’t try. Most perfectionists don’t subscribe to this; they seem to mostly have a fear of being average. They want to succeed perfectly, but if they’re going to fail, they’re going to do so spectacularly. A healthier point of view is to accept that nothing is ever perfect… but it won’t be anything if you don’t do it in the first place.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and 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!
OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER (Darker Subtypes)
Hello, people! Welcome back to the blog, where we’re continuing our discussion of some darker OCD subtypes. Last week we talked about emotional contamination OCD, which is when people become obsessed with the idea that they may become “infected” by the thoughts or beliefs of another person. This can happen any number of ways; through air, electronic media, by touch, by talking about them, or even by being in the presence of someone who’s been in their presence. It’s difficult to deal with- trying to avoid this influence can become so consuming that it completely alters the course of a person’s life. This week, we’re going to talk about a particularly devastating subtype called pedophilia OCD, which features an obsession with the idea that you might be attracted to children, and could potentially act on that attraction.
Before we get started, I want to make a very important distinction. People with pedophilia OCD or POCD are not people you need to hide your children from. They are not predators, and have no actual desire to molest children. They have an unusual form of OCD where an idea basically gets trapped in their brain, and because of the OCD, it gets twisted in such a way that they worry they may act on it. Maybe they see a news segment that gives details on a molestation case, or they read an article, or participate in a discussion; that may be all it takes. The idea of harming a child is as horrifying to them as it is to you and to me, but unfortunately, the OCD allows the possibility to take root. They wonder if their worry about pedophilia means they have desire. They fear they could act, and they obsess about the fear. It can be very debilitating. I’ve had patients that were so afraid of what they “could” do that they were often unable to get out of bed in the morning. They think these thoughts must mean something… why would they have them otherwise? It can be a real mind screw.
Pedophilia OCD is an example of harm based OCD, and there may be many variations on that general theme. It may be a fear that they may hurt or kill strangers, or even parents or siblings. For any person with harm based OCD, the biggest fear is that they are dangerous. The object of harm can remain the same for years, or may change for no obvious reason. A patient I consulted on, a 20-something named Heidi, obsessed about harming her boyfriend. She would find herself worrying she might push him down the stairs, stab him with the carrot peeler, or run him over with her car. She worried about it for three years before she admitted it to anyone… three years! Can you imagine? Once she initiated therapy for that, the focus shifted to a pedophilia based fear; she worried she might molest her baby nephew. It was her first time as an aunt, and she loved the little guy. She didn’t want to hurt him, it was just her OCD talking to her, filling her head with nonsense. She constantly wondered ‘Am I attracted to this; do I want to molest him? Why did I have this thought? This must mean something about me…. this must be who I am.’
It was a nightmare for her. She couldn’t trust herself to be alone with her new nephew, and yet was understandably afraid to tell her sister she was having these thoughts. She wasn’t able to sleep at night, worried she would do something to him while everyone was sleeping. Eventually, she confessed what she was thinking to her mother. With her support, she was then able to talk to her sister, and then her whole family, who all supported her. Sadly, not all do; but she was able to turn to them to seek reassurance. This is a fairly common compulsion for people with stereotypical OCD- they compulsively need another person to tell them what they’re obsessing about isn’t true. Heidi would call her sister or mom and tell them when she was having these scary thoughts, and they would reassure her that she was a good person, she wasn’t going to molest him. It helped take the edge off, but only for about ten seconds. Then it was back to worrying. Remember that OCD is a disorder of doubt. Even after she was diagnosed with OCD, at the back of her mind, Heidi was even unsure if her thoughts came from that, or if it was truly something darker.
Sometimes pedophilia OCD thoughts first center on a parent. People with it may wonder if perhaps they’re attracted to a parent, and/ or if they were molested as children, if something was done to them to cause the thoughts. That’s never happened in any of the cases I’ve been involved in, it’s simply the obsessive mind looking for reason. These thoughts torment people with pedophilia OCD, and many say that they thought they were going crazy before they were diagnosed with OCD. If their fears revolve around molesting children, they will do all they can to avoid them, and not even talk about them. When they can’t avoid the topic, their anxiety and uncertainty is multiplied. They will desperately review every movement they made around a child to help them figure out whether their actions were inappropriate, and they’ll constantly seek reassurance from loved ones, provided they’re aware of it. If not, they suffer alone. They know they would never hurt a child, but they can’t trust themselves, so they really need to hear it from someone else. Self-compassion is often non-existent, self-loathing is more the rule. They believe they should be able to control their thoughts. Since they can’t, they constantly judge themselves, and that often leads to depression.
As you can imagine, it’s hard for them to seek treatment, because they’re afraid of being judged. They live in fear that family and friends will find out the “true” nature of their thoughts, and they’ll be ostracized, labeled as a pedophile, as disgusting or evil. People with POCD feel extreme shame and guilt for their thoughts. Most people don’t understand that pedophilia OCD is not the same as pedophilia. Imagine this: you see a kid and you’re like, ‘Awww, so cute!’ If you have POCD, your next thought is something like, ‘Oh, my god. Does that mean I’m a pedophile?’ Clearly, babies are cute, everyone knows that, nothing wrong with it. But the POCD tries to spin it, so if you have it, it makes you worry that you’re a deviant.
Last week, I talked about exposure therapy for OCD, and POCD is treated the same way- it requires putting the person face to face with the ideas and “temptations” of pedophilia. Just reassuring them that they’re not a pedophile doesn’t work; they don’t believe it. Instead, people with POCD have to become comfortable with the uncertainty, with the risk that their very worst fears are true. Then they have to figure out how to live their lives despite that risk. POCD exposures might include going to a park where children are playing, or to a children’s store, maybe handling clothing. They could watch that pageant show with the nutty parents- might as well try to get a laugh while working on it. At some point, exposures might re-introduce behaviors the person has been avoiding- like having someone who has been avoiding changing a diaper or giving a bath start doing so again- even if it makes them anxious and fearful. As scary as it can be for them, not doing these things can be much more damaging to the children in that person’s life, since people with POCD often avoid giving affection, spending time, or caring for children because of their fears. Ideally, as exposures continue, the person begins to understand that what they’re afraid of isn’t true. The goal is for them to learn that they can trust themselves to do these things without molesting a child or hurting them in any way. As hard as it may be to get there, every patient I’ve worked with has been willing to do whatever it took to reach that realization. It may not make 100% of the obsessive thoughts stop, but it gives them the ability to call bs on them and keep it moving.
Speaking of, that’s it for this week. Next week, another OCD subtype, perfectionism.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and 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!
Dark Side of OCD
Hello, people! Thanks for checking out the blog. Last week, I introduced a new series on unusual OCD subtypes, the darker side of OCD, with compulsions that go beyond the stereotypical examples most people think of. While doubt is still the core issue, people with these obsessions aren’t arranging their colored pencils, checking the light switches, or washing their hands until they’re red and raw. These obsessive thoughts often center more on function- am I swallowing correctly? Can I still blink? Those are examples of the first subtype we covered last week, hyperawareness OCD, also called sensorimotor or somatic OCD. This is an obsession with a part of the body, or with an involuntary bodily function. Breathing, blinking, and swallowing are the top three obsessions, but it can involve the location of a mole or freckle, placement of hands, or even how the skin feels, if it’s itchy, for example. This week, I’m going to cover another subtype, called emotional contamination OCD.
Contamination OCD generally revolves around the classic “feeling germy” or disease obsession. I have patients with this that may take 8 to 10 showers a day, sometimes more if they’re really “in it.” Others have to wear cotton gloves because they’ve washed their hands so much the skin has deep, angry cracks that bleed, yet they still worry they aren’t clean. But with emotional contamination OCD, the obsessive thoughts center on “catching” more abstract things from others, like ideas, values, and traits, as if they are infectious. They constantly ask themselves, what if being near this person causes me to lose my values and assimilate theirs… what if I start believing in what they believe in, instead of what I believe in? It’s a scary thought, right? Imagine having to worry that if you sit next to someone on a train to work, when you arrive, you might not think like you any longer, you might be infected with their thoughts. Will you even still know how to do your job? Yikes! What if you meet someone who’s immoral or a criminal? If you stand near them, touch them inadvertently, or sit in a chair they once sat in, those immoral thoughts may transfer to you, like a virus. You might start stealing things, or cheating on your wife. People with emotional contamination doubt the authenticity and stability of their thoughts. If a thought pops into their heads, it’s ‘did I think that? Or did I catch it from that person?’ And once the thought of contamination begins, it’s so hard to stop.
The obsessive trigger may be a person, a geographical location, or an object, and by touching it, sitting near it, or even going to a place associated with it, people with emotional contamination OCD think they’ll somehow become contaminated with its essence. I had a patient we’ll call John. Great guy- a kid, really- who developed terrible emotional contamination. He was in college on a scholarship, and lived with a roommate, a guy named Mike, who was pretty successful academically as well. They were both business majors, so it sounded like a great setup. Well, as it turns out, Mike was successful because he was entitled and ruthless, and always took advantage of people that offered to help him. This didn’t sit well with John at all, he was a sensitive kind of guy, and he began to worry that he would start to think and act like Mike. He didn’t know why, but he found himself thinking about it constantly, obsessing about it. He was terrified that if he kept living with Mike, or even came into contact with him, that he’d become a ruthless user too. So he started avoiding him, and any friends who interacted with him. He stopped going to the coffee shop where he studied, the bars he frequented, and the restaurants where he ate. He even switched his major so that he and Mike wouldn’t have any crossover. If someone in one of his classes had taken a course in the business building- where Mike took classes- John would have to drop out of that class. Not only that, but he felt so contaminated that he had to throw away the books and study materials, and even the clothes he was wearing when he saw that person. Like many people with emotional contamination OCD, John felt that the traits could also spread through the air, through an association with other people, and even through the internet, so that anything and everything could really become contaminated at any time.
Before long, John had to give up his scholarship and drop out of school. He continued to get rid of his belongings repeatedly- books, computer, clothes- it had to go if it had any prior affiliation with Mike. He had to move into a room above his parent’s garage, he couldn’t go into the main house because Mike’s name had been mentioned there. But Mike had never been discussed in that room, so that was a “Mike free” zone. When he tried to take classes online, he found that even the internet was contaminated by Mike, because his social media profiles were also on the web. When he reached the point where he was getting ready to move into another apartment in a town fifteen miles from his parents, and he was about to buy his fifth computer, he finally decided to get help, and came to see me.
People with emotional contamination OCD feel compelled to avoid the person or idea that’s contaminating them, and that quickly becomes a gargantuan task. Not only does it spread through air, people, objects, and the internet, it can spread through language, so even hearing a word or phrase that sounds like the obsession can trigger the fear and feelings of danger. People end up avoiding television, newspapers, radio, the internet, computers- a constantly expanding circle of people, places, and things- completely isolating themselves to avoid any risk of a potential reminder of their obsession. Eventually, that circle can make it nearly impossible to function.
Imagine you develop emotional contamination around Hershey, Pennsylvania. Very quickly, it wouldn’t be enough to just avoid that town; you wouldn’t be able to go to any towns surrounding it, either. Then you wouldn’t be able to eat Hershey’s chocolate bars, because they share the same name. Then, you’d have to avoid parts of the grocery store, because you’d see the chocolate bars. Then you realize, much to your horror, that Hershey’s makes other food products too, and you need to avoid them. Then you’re stuck in the grocery store for hours, reading labels to make sure you don’t have any contact with Hershey’s products. You can see how it swiftly becomes a big problem. And who knows when and where else you might randomly be triggered. Maybe you go to grandma’s and she asks you to get her favorite hot cocoa from the cabinet, and you discover it comes in a tin that says… you guessed it. You don’t think about the connections between things in life, until they cause you anxiety. When you have emotional contamination, you’re constantly thinking about exactly that, because you have to avoid certain things. But it’s difficult to completely avoid being triggered, even when you’re trying to.
Emotional contamination is rooted in what’s called magical thinking, a psychological concept that your thoughts, imagination, or beliefs will lead to something actually happening in the real world. The phenomenon is present in many subtypes of OCD, but is especially prevalent in emotional contamination. Sometimes people’s thinking can become so “magical” that emotional contamination OCD can even be misdiagnosed as psychosis if a therapist hasn’t dealt with it before. It can be difficult to get a handle on because it’s so nebulous, but the good news is that, like all types of OCD compulsions, emotional contamination can be treated using ERP therapy- exposure and response prevention therapy- which is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment.
If you’ve ever tried to not think about something, you know how hard it is to control your thoughts. If I tell you don’t think about that dumb purple dinosaur Barney, and definitely don’t sing his silly song in your head. What are you doing right now? Are you singing “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…” Exactly. So ERP therapy takes the opposite approach; instead of trying to make yourself stop your obsessive thoughts, you welcome them, and deal with them. The concept behind it is that repeated exposure to the obsessive thoughts, and thus the discomfort that comes with them, affords you the best chance to avoid the compulsion and alleviate that discomfort. When you continually submit to the urge to do compulsions, it only strengthens the need to engage in them. But on the flip side, when you prevent yourself from engaging in your compulsions, you teach yourself a new way to deal with them, and that generally leads to a reduction in anxiety.
Because doubt and uncertainty are at the core of the obsessions, ERP gives you a chance to live with it, to experience it and get through it another way. During ERP therapy, you discuss and track your obsessions and compulsions, and develop a list of alternative ways to face your fears. A therapist then designs exposures, which slowly put you into situations that bring on your obsessions, and cause anxiety or discomfort. You respond, eventually, hopefully in a way that is not compulsory, and this reduces or eliminates the anxiety. In other words, you regain some control, so you prevent yourself from performing whatever compulsion you normally do, be it a physical or mental compulsion, and that eliminates the anxiety or discomfort. Get it? Exposure and response prevention. It can take time, but with continued exposures, you build toward reaching whatever goal you’ve set. ERP therapy can make a huge difference in an OCD patient’s life, and it has a decent success rate, about 80 percent.
That’s a good place to stop for this week. Next week, another OCD subtype, one you won’t want to miss. I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and 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 officeand on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
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!
Welcome back, people! Last week we continued our foray into all things Xanax and talked about dependence and use disorder. The next step in the chain- withdrawal- can be a special kind of beastie, definitely deserving of its own blog, so this week will be all about Xanax withdrawal.
As I mentioned last week, some folks can take their bit of Xanax a couple of times a day as directed for umpteen years, and never develop a tolerance or pathological dependence. Others start out taking it as directed, but develop a tolerance and maybe start to abuse it- take too much too often- and then begin to develop a more pathological dependency. Others may abuse it recreationally on occasion, to netflix and chill, find they really like it, then develop a severe addiction. It may not sound like these people have much in common, but they do. When they stop taking it, they’re all going to go through withdrawal.
They won’t do so alone, though. In 2017, doctors wrote nearly 45 million prescriptions for Xanax, so it’s no surprise that these prescribing practices have contributed to thousands of cases of abuse and dependence. With those numbers, there has been all sorts of research and stats examined on benzos, and I read that in 2018, an estimated 5.4 million people over the age of 12 misused prescription benzodiazepines like Xanax. That’s a lot of people, people.
To many patients that take their Xanax exactly as prescribed, it seems to come as a surprise that they’re facing a withdrawal experience, but Xanax doesn’t discriminate- so anyone taking enough of it for more than a few weeks will develop a physical dependence. Once you have become physiologically dependent on a drug, you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop or reduce your dose. Simple as that.
Withdrawal is different for everyone. Depending on the dose and how often you’ve been using it, the withdrawal experience typically ranges from uncomfortable to very unpleasant, but it can also be medically dangerous. The only safe way to quit is to slowly taper down the dose under the direction of a physician, or in an in-patient treatment center setting, depending on the situation. If you’ve been taking high doses of Xanax several times a day, then quitting is going to take a great deal of time, patience, and determination. Please note that quitting cold turkey can cause extremely dangerous withdrawal symptoms. This can include delirium, which is a state characterized by abrupt, temporary cognitive changes that affect behavior; so you can be irrational, agitated, and disoriented- not a good combo. Sudden withdrawal can also cause potentially lethal grand mal (aka tonic-clonic) seizures. These are like electrical storms in the brain, where you lose consciousness and have violent muscular contractions throughout the body. It’s not a risk you want to take, people- so don’t do this on your own! Even if you’ve been taking Xanax illicitly, that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Just fess up to a physician and tell them exactly how much you’ve been taking so they can design a taper schedule for you, or help you find a treatment center. There is a lot of help available if you make the effort.
Tapering your dose is the best course of action for managing withdrawal symptoms, but that doesn’t mean it’s a picnic in the shade. While you taper down the dose, you’ll likely experience varying degrees of physical and mental discomfort. You may feel surges of anxiety, agitation, and restlessness, along with some unusual physical sensations, like feeling as though your skin is tingling or you’re crawling out of your skin. But keep in mind that these are all temporary.
Signs and Symptoms
The major signs and symptoms of Xanax withdrawal vary from person to person. Research indicates that roughly 40% of people taking benzodiazepines for more than six months will experience moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, while the remaining 60% can expect milder symptoms. It’s very common to feel nervous, jumpy, and on edge during your taper. And because Xanax induces a sedative effect, when the dose is reduced, most people will experience a brief increase in their anxiety levels. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may experience a level of anxiety that’s actually worse than your pre-treatment level. Support from mental health professionals can be very beneficial during and after withdrawal, as therapy and counseling may help you control and manage the emotional symptoms of benzo withdrawal.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms
As a central nervous system depressant, Xanax serves to slow down heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature in the body- in addition to minimizing anxiety, stress, and panic. Xanax may also help to reduce the risk of epileptic seizures. Once the brain becomes used to this drug slowing all of these functions down on a regular basis, when it is suddenly removed, these CNS functions generally rebound quickly, and that is the basis for most withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms can start within hours of the last dose, and they can peak in severity within 1 to 4 days. The physical signs of Xanax withdrawal can include: headache, blurred vision, muscle aches, tension in the jaw and/ or teeth pain, tremors, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness of fingers, tingling in arms and legs, sensitivity to light and sound, alteration in sense of smell, loss of appetite, insomnia, cramps, heart palpitations, hypertension, sweating, fever, delirium, and seizures.
Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
Xanax, as a benzodiazepine, acts on the reward and motivation regions of the brain, and when a dependency is formed, these parts of the brain will be affected as well. When an individual dependent on Xanax then tries to quit taking the drug, the brain needs some time to return to normal levels of functioning. Captain Obvious says that whenever you stop a benzo, because it acts as an anxiolytic, you’re going to experience a sudden increase in anxiety levels. While there are degrees of everything, the psychological symptoms of Xanax withdrawal can be significant, as the lack of Xanax during withdrawal causes the opposite of a Xanax calm, which is to say something akin to panic. At the very least, that can make you overly sensitive, and less able to deal with any adverse or undesired feelings. Withdrawal can leave people feeling generally out of sorts, irritable, and jumpy, while some individuals have also reported feeling deeply depressed. Unpredictable shifts in mood have been reported as well, such as quickly going from elation to being depressed. Feelings of paranoia can also be associated with Xanax withdrawal.
Nightmares are often reported as a side effect of withdrawal. I included insomnia in physical symptoms, but trouble sleeping can also be a psychological symptom, as it is both mentally and physically taxing. People can be overtaken by anxiety and stress during withdrawal, and that may cause this trouble sleeping at night, which then contributes to feelings of anxiety and agitation, so it’s a cycle that can be tough to break free of. Difficulty concentrating is also reported, and research has found that people can have cognitive problems for weeks after stopping Xanax. Ditto for memory problems. Research shows that long-term Xanax abuse can lead to dementia and memory problems in the short-term, although this is typically restored within a few months of the initial withdrawal. Hallucinations, while rare, are sometimes reported when people suddenly stop using Xanax as well. Suicidal ideation is sometimes reported, as the anxiety, stress, and excessive nervousness that can occur during withdrawal can lead to, or coexist with suicidal thoughts. Finally, though rare, psychosis may occur when a person stops using Xanax cold turkey, rather than being weaned off of it.
Xanax Withdrawal Timeline
Xanax is used so commonly for anxiety and panic disorders because it works quickly, but that also means it stops working quickly and leaves the body quickly. Xanax is considered a short-acting benzodiazepine, with an average half-life of 11 hours. As soon as the drug stops being active in the plasma, usually 6 to 12 hours after the last dose, withdrawal symptoms can start. Withdrawal is generally at its worst on the second day, and improves by the fourth or fifth day, but some symptoms can last significantly longer. If you go cold turkey and don’t taper your dose, your withdrawal symptoms will grow increasingly intense, and there really is no way to predict how bad they may get, or how you’ll be affected.
Unfortunately, five days doesn’t signal the end of withdrawal for some people, as some may experience protracted withdrawal. Estimates suggest that about 10% to 25% of long-term benzodiazepine users experience protracted withdrawal, which is essentially a prolonged withdrawal experience marked by drug cravings and waves of psychological symptoms that come and go. Protracted withdrawal can last for several weeks, months, or even years if not addressed by a mental health professional. In fact, these lasting symptoms may lead to relapse if not addressed with continued treatment, such as regular therapy.
Factors Affecting Withdrawal
Withdrawal is different for each individual, and the withdrawal timeline may be affected by several different factors. The more dependent the body and brain are to Xanax, the longer and more intense withdrawal is likely to be. Regular dose, way of ingestion, combination with other drugs or alcohol, age at first use, genetics, and length of time using or abusing Xanax can all contribute to how quickly a dependence is formed and how strong it may be. High stress levels, family or prior history of addiction, mental health issues, underlying medical complications, and environmental factors can also make a difference in how long withdrawal may last for a particular individual and how many side effects are present.
Coping with Xanax Withdrawal
The best way to avoid a difficult and potentially dangerous withdrawal is to slowly taper down your dose of Xanax, meaning to take progressively smaller doses over the course of up to several weeks. By keeping a small amount of a benzo in the bloodstream, drug cravings and withdrawal may be controlled for a period of time until the drug is weaned out of the system completely. It may sound like designing a taper would be a no-brainer, but it’s definitely not recommended to taper without a physician’s guidance. Why? Because Xanax is a short-acting drug, your body metabolizes it very quickly. Controlling that is challenging because the amount of drug in your system goes up and down with its metabolism. To help you avoid these peaks and valleys, doctors often switch you from Xanax to a longer acting benzo during withdrawal, as it may make the process easier. And believe me, that’s what you want. If the physician goes this switch route, once you’ve stabilized on that med, you’ll slowly taper down from that a little bit at a time, just as you would with Xanax.
Another reason not to play doctor on this one is if you start to have breakthrough withdrawal symptoms when your dose is reduced, your physician can pause or stretch out your taper. It’s up to him or her, through discussion with you, to design the best tapering schedule for your individual needs. Sometimes it’s a fluid and changing beastie.
In addition, adjunct medications like antidepressants, beta-blockers, or other pharmaceuticals/ nutraceuticals may be effective in treating specific symptoms of Xanax withdrawal, and you’ll need a physician to recommend and/ or prescribe those as well.
Alleviating Symptoms of Withdrawal
An individual may notice a change in appetite and weight loss during Xanax withdrawal, so it’s important to make every attempt to eat healthy and balanced meals during this time. It may sound obvious, but a multivitamin including vitamin B6, thiamine, and folic acid is especially helpful, as these are often depleted in addiction and withdrawal. There are some herbal remedies that may be helpful during withdrawal, such as valerian root and chamomile for sleep. Meditation and mindfulness are very useful for managing blood pressure and anxiety during withdrawal, so be sure to check out my March 15 blog for more on mindfulness. Considering the insomnia and fatigue that may occur during withdrawal, it may seem counterintuitive to commit to exercise, but it has been shown to have positive effects on mitigating withdrawal symptoms and decreasing cravings. Exercise stimulates the same pleasure and reward systems in the brain, so it stands to reason that it can also help to lift feelings of depression or anxiety that may accompany physical withdrawal symptoms.
Xanax Withdrawal Safety
Some of the things I’ve mentioned are so important they bear repeating. Xanax should not be stopped suddenly, or cold turkey, and vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and temperature need to be closely monitored during withdrawal. This is because these may all go up rapidly during this time, and this can contribute to seizures that can lead to coma and even death.
People with a history of complicated withdrawal syndromes and people with underlying health issues should work very closely with their physician during withdrawal, as should the elderly and people with cognitive issues, as there can be unique risks involved. If you have acquired your Xanax illicitly, you can still work with a doctor to taper down your dose. Start by visiting a primary care physician or urgent care center and tell them that you are in, or are planning to be in, benzodiazepine withdrawal. If you don’t have insurance, visit a community health center. If you plan to or have become pregnant, you will need to discuss your options with your prescribing physician and OB/GYN about the risks and benefits of continuing versus tapering Xanax or other benzos. Some women continue taking them throughout their pregnancy, while others follow a dose tapering schedule.
The key to achieving the goal of getting off of Xanax is to follow the tapering schedule to the very end. By the end of your taper, you might be cutting pills into halves or quarters. Note that some individuals may be better suited for a harm reduction approach, in which the taper leads to a maintenance dose rather than abstinence. If you’re very concerned about the risks involved in Xanax tapering for any reason, discuss these concerns with your physician, because you may be better suited for inpatient detoxification. While this is more expensive, it is covered by many insurance plans.
No matter how you slice it, quitting Xanax takes time, patience, and determination. If you’ve been using it for longer than a few months, quitting can be hard, and there will be days where you want to give up and give in. But with medical supervision and support, you can be successful, and in the long-term, the health benefits are considerable. Withdrawal isn’t a picnic, but if Xanax is both the alternative to it, and a problem for you, it beats that alternative hands down.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. If you did, let me know. If you didn’t, let me know that too!
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Thank you and be well people!
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment
Today I want to thoroughly explain obsessive compulsive disorder, because it is a seriously life altering condition that is frequently misunderstood. We have all heard people refer to friends or family as “OCD” in a joking manner. An example may be if you’re at a party at a friend’s house and the second someone puts their drink on the coffee table, the host runs to grab a coaster and quickly puts it under the drink, prompting a partygoer to say, ‘Oh my gawwwd, Pam, you’re so OCD!” This casual and off-handed way that OCD is referred to in everyday conversation may make it seem that the obsessions and/ or compulsions are just something annoying or amusing that a person can just “get over.” But for people with OCD, it’s not just a simple annoyance, it is a complex, frustrating, and anxiety inducing disorder. OCD is fairly common, affecting roughly 3% of the population. The age of onset is typically during the childhood years, and it is equally distributed between males and females. I have many patients with OCD, and unfortunately, I have diagnosed and treated many children with OCD throughout my career. One of the factors I always think about when assessing and diagnosing children with any disease or disorder is how much they may or may not be able to understand the symptoms they’re having. In cases of OCD, it concerns me even more, because it’s clear that these symptoms are very disturbing to children, especially because they don’t know what the heck’s going on. They don’t know why they get fixated on things or what their ritualistic behaviors are about, like why they have to turn their bedroom light off and on exactly 29 times before they can turn it off for good at night. They don’t understand why they get so upset and angry when they cannot perform their compulsive rituals, or why they constantly get stuck in intrusive, obsessive thoughts. Even adults with OCD don’t understand these things, but they are better equipped to recognize that something isn’t right, and better able to communicate the need to seek help. Obviously, children cannot simply drive themselves to a physician’s office, they rely on parents who may mislable the symptoms as a behavioral problem, not even notice the symptoms, or notice them but not realize there is a problem.
At its root, OCD is an anxiety disorder, marked by the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of the two. Obsessions are essentially intrusive thoughts that come up for no obvious reason and that just don’t go away. Compulsions are behaviors they feel they must perform, otherwise they become very anxious and very distressed; for some, almost to the point where they are paralyzed if they don’t do them. But, people with OCD do not want to do these compulsive things; they know they aren’t right, know they aren’t normal, and that means that they are not psychotic. A psychotic individual would say they do these things because aliens told them to, or for any reason. The point is that psychotic people believe they have a reason. Contrast that to people with OCD; they have no reason, no explanation. It occurs because a switch in their minds malfunctions. It doesn’t shut off, it doesn’t ever tell them that checking the lock once before bed is enough, that when they see that the lock is engaged, it will stay that way until they unlock it the next morning.
There are four criteria to consider in diagnosing OCD: – The presence of obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of the two. – These obsessions and/ or compulsions cause a significant amount of distress, to the point that they get in the way of a normal life. – The obsessions and/ or compulsions are not the result of taking any pharmaceutical or street drugs.- The obsessions and/ or compulsions cannot be explained by the presence of another illness; for example,being obsessed with body image as a result of body dysmorphic disorder, or being obsessed with food as a result of having anorexia nervosa.
So, what is an obsession? An obsession is an intrusive thought that an individual cannot expel from their conscious thinking, a thought that randomly pops into their head and will not leave. Now, understand that everyone, even people without OCD, will sometimes have some sort of obsessive thoughts; it’s entirely normal, so this is a matter of degrees. For example: if a student has a big important exam the next day, they may check their phone alarm or alarm clock 3 or 4 times the night before. This is not indicative of obsessive or compulsive behavior. But, someone with obsessive compulsive disorder will check the alarm so often, over and over, to the point that they get no sleep. A person basically crosses the bridge from normal, cautious behavior to pathologic obsessive and/ or compulsive behavior when these behaviors interfere with, and prevent them from living full lives.
Obsessive subtypes in OCD sort of loosely fall into five categories, but don’t forget that there’s always something new under the sun.
1. Counting/ math/ calculations/ numbers: they exhibit a ritualization involving numerical calculations in the brain. They have to count something- it may be steps, times turning switches off and on, locking and unlocking a deadbolt, etc. Some have to add or subtract numbers of steps involved in completing a certain action, and they must get the same number each time they perform that action. If they take three steps forward, they must take that many backward. While these things don’t make any rational sense, they actually create order for them. You might think, well, they aren’t hurting anyone, so whatever floats their boat. But they are actually hurting themselves. These people count so much and do and redo so many times that they can’t get to work on time, they can’t live their lives normally. It can have a devastatingly negative impact on every aspect of their lives. Sometimes they literally get stuck somewhere, because ‘the numbers don’t work.’ One of my long time OCD patients, Bruce, does pretty well for the most part, he takes his meds, keeps his appointments, and earnestly works on himself. He’s pretty much a model OCD patient, but every once in a while, the train jumps the tracks, and I get an emergency call from him saying he’s stuck somewhere. The last time was just a few weeks ago; he was inside a bank, and had just realized that there were separate entrance and exit doors, so he knew that the number of steps he had taken to get from his car and into the bank were going to be fewer than the number of steps it would take for him to walk out of the bank and back to his car. I explained that yes, Bruce, it would take more steps to walk out of the bank and back to your car, simply because you parked closer to the entrance door when you drove in. I told him that was normal, and it was to be expected. But he was really stuck, incredibly anxious, evidently pacing back and forth in the bank lobby. He said the tellers and bank manager were seriously eyeing him. They were probably thinking that he had some nefarious scheme in mind and that his constant frantic pacing was his way of plucking up the courage to enact his plan. Thankfully, I was able to talk him down off the ledge that day. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick, but eventually I convinced him that the difference in the number of steps was expected, that it had to be that way, so it was okay, and that he would see that I was right, that it was true, as soon as he left the bank and got in his car. I stayed on the phone as he walked out of that bank, certainly with great trepidation, and I could hear him counting steps just under his breath, until he got in his car. When I heard him exhale loudly and close the car door, I knew we were home free. He thanked me profusely, I said it was cool, no prob, and I went back to my patient. That’s Bruce!
2. Catastrophic Fears: aptly named, these are fears of major proportions, absolute worst case scenarios on steroids, and taken to the n’th degree. These are not like, ‘oh, I forgot my presentation was scheduled today.’ These are more like, ‘did I leave something on? Oh my, I just know I left the stove on. Oh no, the house is going to burn down to the ground! It’s going to burn! And we’ll never afford to rebuild! Oh God, what will I do?!’
Or, it can be a fear that you will harm someone, even someone you love. That you’ll suddenly take a hammer and bash someone’s head in, or that you’ll take an assault rifle and gun them down in their backyard. I’ve had lots of OCD patients of both kinds, the doom and gloom Negative Nancy types, and the head-smashing-hammer-weilders and assault-rifle-gunners. When I think of the latter type, I always think of a patient named Hillary. She was just twenty when she first came to see me, and she came with her mother, whose name was Alain or Alaina or something like that. I do recall that she had a very french accent. When I asked Hillary why she had come to see me, she didn’t answer right away, so eventually, her mother said in her thick accent, ‘she’s worried that she wants to kill me, to slit my throat.’ I have to say, I was taken aback. I looked across my desk at this whisp of a girl, not looking at me, but at her hands, which she knotted and unknotted, like she was washing them. I asked her if that was true, and still not looking at me, she nodded. I asked her mother, “So you brought her in because you’re worried that she’s going to kill you?” She looked at me and replied, “No, doctor. I brought her because she is worried that she’s going to kill me. I am not worried about that, only about her. She talks about it incessantly. She says she doesn’t think she wants to do it, but she’s still afraid she’s going to.” I asked Hillary how often she thought about it, about killing her mother, and she simply said, “All the time.” I will never forget how heavy that room was. You could feel the oppression, for lack of a better word. Matricide, the killing of a mother by her child is pretty uncommon, especially at the hands of a daughter. I could see clear OCD tendencies, but her pathology really hinged on her obsessive, catastrophic fear, which was undoubtedly 100% genuine. Without any rhyme or reason, apropos of nothing, the thought of killing her mother would randomly pop into her head. Imagine that for a moment. Imagine the first time it popped into Hillary’s head at age thirteen. Then imagine it constantly popping into her head, all the time. But, you know you love your mother, right? Right? But yet you think you might kill her. At twelve. How confusing would that be? I knew that we had a long road ahead, but I wanted to help Hillary. With OCD, one of the main treatments is exposure therapy. For example, if someone had to touch the faucet 37 times before they could turn it on, the exposure therapy would be to push them into walking into a bathroom and simply turning on the faucet without touching it beforehand. You expose them to the thing they obsess about, the thing they perform their compulsion on. It’s very difficult at first, but it can be very effective. There really was no way to try exposure therapy for Hillary’s particular obsessive thoughts of catastrophic fear…I couldn’t give her a knife to hold at her mother’s throat as I tell her to resist slitting her throat. Captain Obvious says that might be traumatic. Nonetheless, we met at least every two weeks, and more often when she was in a tough spot, which happened a lot. We tried drug therapies and eventually hit on a combination that seemed to work well, and we did some serious psychotherapy over several years. And ever so very slowly, she improved. She wasn’t OCD free, but it was possible that it would never be totally gone. There were still times when her obsessive thoughts were exacerbated for no obvious reason, but those have been fewer and farther between as she’s gotten older. I attribute a lot of that to her mother. She is a strong woman, and she could have chosen to dismiss Hillary’s fears because she didn’t understand them or believe them. You have to admit, it would feel weird to hear your child speak obsessively about slitting your throat. But Hillary’s mother didn’t turn a blind eye or distance herself, she actually did the opposite: she drew her daughter closer and sought help. There isn’t always that kind of family support, so it was very reassuring to all three of us. The depth of Hillary’s beliefs in her obsessive fears was significant, especially for a girl of her age. She was sure that she was going to kill her mother, whether she wanted to or not. But please know that just because someone in the family has OCD, it does not mean they’re out to get you.
3. Fear and Hypermorality: hypermorality is essentially taking manners and consideration for others to an unnatural degree. The fear these people have is that they said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, made a mistake or misstatement to a friend or family member, or sent an email or text or made a comment on social media that may have hurt someone else’s feelings or made them upset. They will go over and over a previous interaction in their mind, obsessively searching for anything they may have said that could have possibly slighted someone, because they’re sure they did, they just aren’t certain when. For example, if they say hello, they will immediately begin thinking ‘did I say hello in the right way, in the right tone? Did I walk away too quickly after I said hello? And I only said hello, I didn’t ask how they were, should I have asked how they were?’ This is not an exaggeration. Can you imagine what these people go through, when the simple act of saying hello causes tremendous amounts of anxiety and endless rounds of second guessing everything! That’s how this disorder interferes with people’s lives; it gets in the way of their daily operations, and they simply cannot get anything accomplished because they are so consumed with these obsessions.
4. Religion: some people have religious obsessions, where they believe they must say specific prayers in a certain order for a multiple of times, and that each round must be perfect; if not, they must start again. This can take up hours upon hours on end. These prayer rituals are compulsive, and are required in an attempt to quell the obsessive thoughts about how to love God perfectly, or how to be worthy, how to ask His forgiveness or how to live a righteous life…whatever obsessive beliefs they affix themselves to. Commonly involved in religious obsessions and related compulsive behaviors involve acts of supplication, kneeling or bowing before God or whatever religious idol they obsess about, because they must do so. Some religions incorporate other compulsory activities like fasting, so OCD people may believe they must also do that to show their devotion. When religious activities are taken to a level of obsession, they are likely to be much harsher and far more restricting than the original religion actually proscribes. Ritualistic self-mutilation and pain is encouraged by some radical religions to prove one’s worthiness, and people with extreme religion-oriented OCD obsessions feel a compulsive draw to these behaviors. They can see that they are different, that others do not take their beliefs to the same levels, but they cannot stop. Whenever I think of OCD cases involving religious obsessions and associated radical compulsions, I have one patient that comes to mind. I’ve seen him over a span of probaby ten years…a long time. His name is Benigno, and he is originally from Peru, but he’s lived on Palm Beach for a long time, and he’s done well for himself. He first came to see me (reluctantly) at the request of his family. They were concerned that his religious beliefs and activities had become far too radical in recent years. They reported that he was now totally consumed by his religion, and that they believed it was endangering his life. That’s all the background his family gave me. When he sat down for his first appointment, I started by asking Benigno to tell me about his upbringing. He said he was raised in a traditional Catholic home in Peru, but he always saw his beliefs as very different from his siblings, even though they were raised in the same home. He said that even his family noticed that from the very early age of seven, he took his relationship with God to an unusual level for such a young child. Even at that age, he spoke endlessly about God, he would fast for days, he would kneel on rocks in the backyard as he prayed for 15 hours straight, he would deny himself sleep in favor of praying the rosary until his voice was hoarse. As he grew and advanced in school, rather than playing sports or making friends, he spent time in a radical religious group, with people far older than he was. They clearly saw his unusually zealous behavior and encouraged it, telling him that he must do more to demonstrate his worthiness to God. It was really the only time I can recall hearing that anyone actually encouraged another person’s obsessive thoughts and destructive compulsions. It was disturbing, to say the least. Benigno definitely had OCD, but it was a little atypical in it’s origins. I think that when it started in his childhood, the religious belief system he was raised in may have contributed to its genesis. Perhaps a nun at his school said that he should pray more, or ask God’s forgiveness for something or else risk eternal damnation, who knows. He didn’t like the OCD label, and wasn’t always sure that his obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors were preventing him from having a fulfilling life. He always vacillated on that point, but he did concede that his behaviors weren’t normal. Over time, he’s eased up a little on his compulsions, but he’s uncomfortable during those times, because his obsessive thoughts are telling him that he needs to do certain actions to lead a life that pleases God or to be worthy of His love, whatever thought is screaming the loudest in his brain. I just started him on medication recently, because he had refused it until then. I think that will really help him, but we will continue on with psychotherapy. Benigno is a work in progress.
5. Symmetry/ Order: symmetry and ordering obsessions and compulsions are among the most prevalent OCD symptom subtypes. These people are compelled to make everything line up, to make things equal on two sides, and/ or to arrange things into equal groups. Many times, I’ve seen frazzled parents in my office very concerned, because little Johnny must have his toy trucks in a perfect line, grouped by color, and arranged from largest to smallest. They are amazed and more than a little frightened by his precision. If one truck is accidentally moved a fraction of an inch out of place when Fido runs through to bark at the old lady next door as she heads into her garden, little Johnny loses his mind. And even if mommy runs like a cheetah to put it back perfectly in its place a mere millisecond later, it doesn’t assuage his outrage. This is actually a pretty typical presentation in a child of little Johnny’s age. But these obsessive thoughts on order and symmetry will change as he ages. He may need his third grade class to have an exactly equal number of boys and girls, or else he cannot be in that classroom, and he demonstrates that in all sorts of destructive behaviors…screaming, kicking, biting, throwing books, tearing down posters, and generally throwing a monstrous tantrum. Why? Because little Johnny is pissed off. His brain is telling him that everything is wrong in his world right now, because there are four more boys than girls, and that’s unacceptable. So his brain just fizzes, like when you put pop rocks in a pepsi…it overwhelms him. It’s a difficult OCD subtype to manage because it’s so persistent. Little Johnny will need a lot of time in therapy, but ultimately, I think he’ll be okay.
As for compulsions…these can be as numerous and diverse as anything that people’s brains can come up with, which is to say they’re pretty much unlimited. The ones that often spring to mind are like checking to make sure the stove is off, checking to make sure the garage door is shut, checking to make sure the locks are locked, the alarm is on, the gas is off, the fire in the fireplace is dead, the faucet is off, the grill cover is on, the car has gas, the tires have air, the lights are off…and then checking them again. And again. Maybe locking and unlocking and locking the front door, over and over, until they’re satisfied it’s locked, which is almost never. Their brain never says STOP! THE DOOR IS LOCKED. GO TO BED. That box doesn’t get ticked; it does not happen quickly.
They may be obsessed with cleanliness, either of themselves or their possessions: home, car, clothes. So they ritualistically clean them over and over, it must be perfect. I have a fairly new patient named Launa, and she is obsessed with cleanliness, and she ritualistically cleans…very, very thoroughly. She cleans and cleans and cleans again. She will cover the house seven or eight times in a day, or all through the night instead of sleeping, whenever her obsession moves her. And she doesn’t just sweep, wash, and wax her floors. She gets a roll of scotch tape and gets on the floor, placing her head perpendicular to the floor so that she can see the profile of a microscopic bit of sand, or some flotsam, real or imagined, against the flat surface of the floor. Once she has it in her sites, she takes a piece of the scotch tape and sticks it on top of the speck, pulling it off the floor, trapping it on the tape, then putting the bit of tape with the offending speck in her pocket for safe keeping. She does every square inch of her floors that way, on her hands and knees, moving specifically from her back kitchen door, into each of her two guest bedrooms, and finally finishing at the far wall of her bedroom. She goes through a minimum of six rolls of scotch tape at a time, and she will do this every single day. Often, she gets to that far wall of her bedroom and starts over again immediately. Her knees are perpetually black and blue, and her hands are often swollen and painful from overuse, but that’s more tolerable than trying to deny the compulsive behavior that her obsession demands. It’s sad, because this smart, funny, gentle woman has no life, and she knows it, sees it, hates it, but feels powerless to change it. But I am committed to helping her do just that, and I know she’ll get there.
By the time most of my OCD patients get to me, they’re pretty stuck in their compulsions. There’s the engineer that must spend precisely eight minutes in the shower- no more, no less. He sets an alarm in the bathroom for seven minutes and fifty-two seconds, and when it goes off, he has exactly eight seconds to open the door and step out of the shower. If for some reason something delays his exit, like having to pick up a dropped washcloth, he must start another shower. He will do this until he gets it perfect. I would hate to have his water bill. In a similar fashion, he allows himself four minutes to brush and floss his teeth and use mouthwash…which he must do in a certain pattern…swish quickly in left cheek three times, then right cheek three times, then around his front teeth three times, then tilt head back to gargle three seconds, and spit.
There’s the recent suma cum laud college grad that lost her dream job because she was always late. Why? Because she spent anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour each morning when she was to leave her house to go to work, locking and unlocking her front door over and over until she had to leave. But she was never satisfied that it was locked, so she often went home on her lunch hour, spending it standing at her front door, turning the key, unlocking, locking, unlocking, locking…Losing her job was an eye-opener, and that’s what brought her to me.
Another OCD patient, a 13-year-old boy named Andrew, was consumed with a very detailed and very peculiar eating ritual. The food on his plate could not be touching. His mother had to make sure of this. The meat could not touch the rice, which could not touch the broccoli, which could not touch the roll. If a catastrophe happened and any of the food touched, it had to be thrown out and his mother would have to make him a new plate. But that wasn’t all. When his mother set his plate in front of him, she had to arrange it so that the meat was top left, the veg top right, the starch bottom left, and the roll at the bottom right of the plate. Then, before he could begin eating, he had to hold his fork in his left hand and his knife in his right, each positioned tines and blades up just so, and flanking the sides of his plate. Then he would simultaneously raise the utensils and touch them to the table three times, and then put them together above the center of his plate and touch once there, then put them together again below the center of his plate and touch once there. Only then could he eat his food, but just as the food couldn’t touch on the plate, it couldn’t touch in his mouth either. He ate each part separately, always in order. First the meat, then the veg, then the starch, and then the roll. Well, unfortunately, one day Andrew was riding in a friend’s mothers car, and they were in a terrible car accident, and he was paralyzed, so his mother had to do everything for him, including feeding him. His ritualistic compulsions were still so consuming, so powerful, that before he could eat, his mother had to perform his rituals. Every single one of them. And she had to do them over and over and over, until they were perfect…or else he would totally lose it, scream and spit and curse her for being stupid. She told me that in the beginning, she would be sitting at that table for hours and hours, tears streaming down her face, repeating his knife and fork touching rituals, to the point where she would literally be nodding off, only to be snapped awake by his belittling venom. I told him that everyone understood that he couldn’t help it, that he wasn’t in control of his compulsions, but that it was unacceptable to treat his mother the way he did, screaming at her, calling her names, and spitting at her. I told him that she was the only person even willing to try to put up with his behaviors. His father had zero patience for it, and he didn’t dare speak to him with the words he used with his mother. With time, meds, a lot of therapy, and the acceptance of his paralysis, he mellowed out a little and things have improved. But Andrew needs more work, and his mother is completely devoted to helping him. I honestly don’t know how she does it, but for his sake, I’m glad she does.
I had a nine-year-old boy with OCD come into the office. His mother had to wear gloves and a mask to prepare his food, because otherwise she would contaminate it. She had to serve it on a paper plate, and when she set the food in front of him, he would spend 15 minutes scrutinizing it, like he was looking for germs, as though he could see them. He had to eat with disposable plastic utensils and use only paper napkins. Everything was always single use, so as not to take the chance that old food could stay on ceramic plates or steel utensils even after being washed.
Another patient, a 42-year-old man named Gary, was obsessed with perfectly pristine white sneakers. If he got so much as a speck of dirt on them, they were ruined. He would buy a new pair and burn the offending pair.
Another patient, a man originally from Jamaica, had a ritual of tracing a cross on his chest with his finger every time he felt he had said anything contrary to anyone. He dis this so often, to the point that he wore through the skin, literally down to the sternum bone in the middle of his chest.
I had another patient, a physical therapy tech that had an odd compulsion. While driving, if he went over a speed bump, he had to turn the car around to check to make sure he hadn’t run over a person. He knew on some level that it was just a speed bump, that he had even seen the speed bump as he’d driven ober it, but his obsession told him that it might possibly have been a person, so the compulsion was for him to turn around to make sure. Luckily, it hasn’t been a person a single time.
A young woman came in for her first appointment, and she arrived looking totally exhausted. She had dark circles and huge bags under her eyes, her hair was all messy, and she looked like she was waaay out there. I told her that she looked very tired and she agreed. I asked her why, and she said she had been up all night. That begged the question of why once again, and she said that she had recently moved to a new apartment, and she had been trying to hang a picture. To which I raised an eyebrow and said, and?…. She smiled, blushed, and said that she just couldn’t get it level, so it took ‘a while.’ I said, “Are you telling me that you spent all night hanging that one picture?” Embarassed, she quietly answered yes. I suggested wryly that she buy a level at Home Depot. Still embarassed, she said, “I have one. I didn’t trust it.” Despite myself, all I could do is laugh. Then I suggested that she might have OCD. And I swear, with a straight face, she said, “Really? Do you really think so?” Oh boy…seriously?! She was actually surprised…I’m telling you, never a dull moment.
Late one afternoon not long ago, I finished with a patient, the last one of the day, so I said I’d walk out with him, and I went and turned the AC up, shut the lights off, and walked out the door, never breaking stride. As I locked the office door behind us, I saw that he was looking at me, incredulous. Startled, I said “What?” He said, “Oh my God, how did you just do that?!” Totally confused, I was like ‘what?’ and he said, “How can you just close up and walk out of your office like that, that fast? I spend at least an hour a day getting out of my office, checking everything over and over before I can walk out, then at least another 15 minutes locking and unlocking the front door before I can head to the car.” I told him, “Next appointment, you and I are going to discuss that, man.”
And now of course, I have lots of patients freaking out about coronavirus. I have a specific woman who does not ever leave her home, and even though she’s home alone, never exposed to anything or anyone, she cannot touch anything bare handed inside her own home. So, her solution is to wear surgical gloves, 24-7. We had a facetime appointment recently and I commented on the gloves, and she told me she wore them all the time, even to bed, but that the skin on her hands was getting irritated. I talked her into taking the gloves off for a minute so I could see her hands. They were so pruney, reddish purple, and deeply wrinkled all over, like they had been covered in water for a loooong time…which I mentioned to her. But, she said it wasn’t water, it was sweat. I said, “Ewwww!” and she was like, “Yeah, I should probably let them dry off, maybe air them out a little bit.” Ya think?!
All kidding aside, you can imagine how strong these obsessions can be, and how debilitating all the ritualistic checking, rechecking, doing, undoing can be. Many people with OCD have a very strict schedule. They have a routine that they follow religiously, day in and day out, that helps them to be somewhat functional. They get up at the same time everyday, eat the same breakfast, wear the same color shirt, same color tie, same shoes, drive the same route to work, park in the same space, eat the same lunch, drive the same route home, watch the same television shows, eat the same dinner, on and on and on. For these people, every single day of their lives is groundhog day. They have no room in their lives for spontaneity, no opportunities for joy…not without help.
These are anxious people, stressed out to the max. OCD is a distressing illness at best. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Treatment does work for those willing to put in the work, and they can go on to live healthy lives. The commonly accepted treatments involve psychotherapy and exposure response coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy. What does that mean? Basically, the therapist must coach the patient on what to do with the obsessive thoughts. Explain that they must accept that they cannot control the thoughts. That they must not engage with the thoughts, not feed the thoughts, because once they do, the thoughts will get stuck in their head, with no way to get rid of them. So they must let them just float away, do not address them, just let them float away. Let them drift away, and the further they drift, the more they can replace them with healthy thoughts. Explain that if the thoughts do come, it’s okay, but they should respond to the thoughts in a way that does not escalate anxiety, so not focusing on the thoughts, not feeding the thoughts, but redirecting the thoughts to other thoughts that are healthy, this is the best way to deal with them. There are also drug treatments, SSRI medications, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Prozac and Paxil. Luvox and Zoloft can also be used to treat OCD. Whenever possible, I like to employ a combination of meds, plenty of psychotherapy, and the exposure response coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy. When an OCD patient is willing to work and sticks to the plan, it’s truly life changing. Need proof? Well, maybe ask soccer star David Beckham, comedian Howie Mandel, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, singer Justin Timberlake, or his ex-girlfriend, actress Cameron Diaz. Or maybe actress and entreprenuer Jessica Alba, Shock Jock Howard Stern, or actor Nicolas Cage. They all seem to have done pretty well for themselves, and I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that treatment works.
If you’re interested in more stories of OCD patients, or other psychiatric diagnoses, you can check out my book, Tales from the Couch, on Amazon.com. It’s a great read, entertaining and informative, and a really awesome way to spend a no- fun quarantine, if I do say so myself.
Be well, everyone.Learn More