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
Time to Log Off?
Technology addiction, electronic addiction, digital addiction, social media addiction, internet addiction, mobile phone addiction…. No matter the name, the common thread in these addictions is that they’re all impulse control disorders that involve the obsessive use of mobile phones, internet, and/or video games, despite the negative consequences to the user of the technology. For simplicity, I’ll combine all of the above names together and refer to the phenomena as a digital addiction.
*** A new special called “Digital Addiction” will air on the A&E Network (Comcast HD ch 410 / SD ch 54) on Tuesday, September 17th at 9pm. There will be stories of people addicted to video games and social media and discussion on how people are trying to recover from digital addiction. It should be very interesting, so check it out.
Do you play video games in excess? Are you compulsively shopping or gambling online? Do you spend hours taking the perfect picture to post or ‘Gram or tweet? Do you feel a need to constantly monitor all of your social media outlets to look for likes and loves and to track people to see what they’re up to? Is your excessive use of all of these things interfering with your daily life- family, relationships, work, school? If you answered yes to any of these questions above, you may be suffering from a digital addiction disorder. These disorders have been rapidly gaining ground as they are more recognized as truly debilitating, and as a result, they are recently receiving serious attention from many researchers, mental health counselors and doctors. The prevalence statistics vary wildly, with some reports stating that the addiction disorder affects up to 8.2% of the general population, but others state it affects up to a whopping 38%. In my opinion, it affects far more than 8.2%, but not quite 38%, so my educated guess is about 20%. That’s one-fifth of the population… a staggering number of people. And we have the explosion of the digital age to thank. Advancing technology is the ultimate double-edged sword. One of the most troubling things about this disorder is that we are endlessly surrounded by technology. Most of what we do is done through the internet. And we’re enticed to do things online. Take Papa John’s as an example- if you place your order online, you get an extra discount or a free small pizza. Lots of company sites offer similar discounts. And if you do buy online, most companies then include you in their email blasts with info on sales and discounts. Even if you’re just doing research on something online, not shopping, you’ll get little photo pop-ups from online stores you’ve ordered from before. Gamers make up a huge subset of the digitally addicted. Ask any mother of a male child aged 10 and up if she and her son argue about his spending too much time playing games, and chances are she’ll tell you that it happens all the time. Of course, to the developers of these games, that’s a total eargasm! These game developers have a strategy to keep people, especially kids, glued to their seats with eyes on the screen. Many games, especially the huge multiplayer roleplaying games like World of Warcraft and Everquest, may lead to a gaming addiction because as players play together, they spur each other on. In addition, these games have limitless levels, so in effect, they never end.
Just because you use the internet a lot, watch a lot of YouTube videos, shop online frequently, or like to check social media often does not mean you suffer from a digital addiction disorder. It only crosses over into the trouble zone when these digital activities start to interfere with, or even negate, your daily life activities. Every tweet, every phone alert DING! is an interruption in your thoughts, your psyche, and your day. I have a handful of patients that struggle with just turning their phones off during a session with me. They literally get anxious being without it, being unable to check it. They have to hold it, have it in their hands. I have one patient that couldn’t turn it off but agreed to put it in her purse. That stupid thing dinged and blipped and bleated every freaking 5 – 10 minutes, I swear. And every time, I could see her leave the appointment….it interrupted her train of thought with every stupid, annoying noise it made. I told her that next time, and for every time thereafter, the phone would be off and in my drawer. She grudgingly agreed, but she regularly panicked without it, so I had to begin every session by talking her off the edge.
Like many disorders, it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of digital addiction disorder, but there have been some risk factors identified. These include physical impairments, social impairments, functional impairments, emotional impairments, impulsive internet use, and dependence on the internet. The digital world can be an escape for people with various impairments, so they are at higher risk.
Digital addiction disorder has multiple contributing factors. Some evidence suggests that if you have it, your brain makeup may be similar to those of people that have a chemical dependency, such as drugs or alcohol. Some studies even report a potential link between digital addiction disorder and brain structure- that the disorder may physically change the amount of gray and white matter in a region of the brain associated with attention, remembering details, and planning and prioritizing tasks. As a result, the affected person is rendered unable to prioritize their life, so the digital technology takes precedence over necessary life tasks.
Digital addiction disorder, as in other dependency disorders, affects the pleasure center of the brain. The addictive behavior triggers a release of dopamine, which is the happy, feel good chemical. Note the name dopamine. Drugs of all sorts are often referred to as dope, and this is not happenstance; they are called dope because drugs elicit the release of dopamine as well, causing the pleasurable high. So chemically speaking, the high that gamers or internet surfers or Facebook hyper-checkers get from indulging their addiction is exactly the same as when a drug addict takes drugs. Win a game or get a like or love on Fakebook, get a dopamine hit. And, just like with drugs, people develop a tolerance over time, so more and more of the activity is needed to induce the same pleasurable response that they had in the beginning. Ultimately, this creates a dependency.
There are also some biological predispositions to digital addiction disorder. If you have this disorder, your levels of dopamine and serotonin may be naturally deficient as compared to the general population. This chemical deficiency may require you to engage in more behaviors to receive the same pleasurable response that individuals without the addiction have naturally.
Another predisposition to digital addiction disorder is anxiety and/or depression. If you already have anxiety or depression, you may turn to the internet or social media to fill a void or find relief, maybe in the form of online retail therapy for example. In the same way, people who are very shy or socially awkward may turn to the internet to make electronic friends because it doesn’t require actual personal interaction.
The signs and symptoms of digital addiction disorder can present themselves in both physical and emotional manifestations.
Emotional symptoms may include:
Feelings of guilt
Feelings of euphoria when indulging
Inability to prioritize tasks
Problems with keeping schedules
No sense of time
Avoidance of work
Boredom with routine tasks
Physical symptoms may include:
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Poor nutrition: not eating or junk food
Poor or zero personal hygiene
Dry eyes and other vision problems
Weight gain or loss
Digital addiction disorder impacts life in many ways. It affects personal relationships, work life, finances, and school life. Individuals with it often hide themselves away from others and spend a long time in this self-imposed social isolation, and this negatively impacts all personal relationships. Trust issues may also come up due to the addicts trying to hide, or lying to deny, the amount of time they spend online. Sometimes, these individuals may create alternate personas online in an attempt to mask their online behaviors. Serious financial troubles may also result from the avoidance of work, as well as bankruptcy due to continued online shopping, online gaming, or online gambling. They may also have trouble developing new relationships, and they often withdraw socially, because they feel more at ease in an online environment than an actual physical one.
One of the overarching problems with the internet is that there is often no accountability and no limits. You are hidden behind a screen, so you may say or do some things online that you would never consider doing in person. To some, that can be a very attractive proposition. One iissue that happens in digital addiction is that people who may be shy or awkward or lonely may create a new identity for themselves. They find that on the internet, they can be the person that they can’t be in real life. They develop this perfect fantasy world where everything goes their way. The problem is that the more they get into that fantasy wotld, the more distant they become from the real world. The results can be a disaster emotionally when they’re forced into the real world; they find they can’t function there and desperately need help. There’s a flip side to a created persona, where it’s done to intentionally hurt others. By now, I’m sure most people are familiar with “catfishing” from the eponymous movie and television program. For those who are not familiar, catfishing is the purposeful act of luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. Catfish steal pictures of an attractive person, usually from that person’s social media, and they create a fictional persona and post it online with the stolen pictures to see who bites. If they get an attractive bite, they message that target to begin a relationship for their own devious purposes, which is usually just to get their rocks off, to hurt someone because they hurt, to get nude pictures, or to weasel people out of money. Catfish often do this with multiple people, leading them on, and are usually pretty proud of themselves for it. I think they’re lowlife cowards. My point is that the internet is full of people that feel brave online but who cower in real life. Online and social media digital addicts are more likely to be targeted, simply because they spend so much time on their devices, on the internet, or monitoring their social media.
As for diagnosis, because it was only very recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder that needs more research, a standardized diagnosis of digital addiction disorder has not been developed. This is likely due to the variability of the different digital applications that people may become addicted to, as well as the fact that digital addicts can have anxiety and/or depression as well, and therefore would have difficulty, or may be averse to, seeking help.
As to treatment options for digital addiction disorder, the first step in treatment is the recognition that a problem exists. If you don’t believe you have a problem, you’re not likely to seek treatment.
Developing a compulsive need to use digital devices, to the extent that it interferes with your life and stops you from doing things you need to do, is the hallmark of an addiction. If you think you or a loved one may have a digital addiction, you should definitely see a psychiatrist, because there may be an underlying issue like anxiety and/or depression that is treatable with talk therapy and/or medication. I specialize in addiction, and I work with many patients with digital addiction with a great deal of success. There is a right way to utilize technology without it running and ruining your life, so please seek help.
Digital addiction disorder has become such a common theme in my practice that I cover this topic in several stories in my book, so check out Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com if you’d like to read patient stories and get more information on the digital addiction phenomenon.Learn More