OCD: fears and anxieties
Some years ago I wrote a descriptive article about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At the time it was hardly spoken about, and certainly not understood by the general public.
Since then, the phrase ‘obsessive-compulsive’ has become part of the general vocabulary to casually describe someone who could be a perfectionist, meticulous, or focused in what they do. Some of this is due to the emergence of celebrities with OCD, such as David Beckham.
However, OCD is a serious mental disorder with a range of symptoms which make life a misery for the sufferer and their families. In fact, OCD is said to be the fourth most common mental disorder and is almost as common as asthma and diabetes (Am. Fam. Physician, 1994).
Symptoms include unreasonable fears, obsessions and thoughts which subsequently lead to repetitive behaviour, such as obsessive washing of the hands. Examples of people I have known with this disorder are a person who was convinced he had hit either a person, or a car, when driving to work so he would arrive at work and then drive back home again to make sure he had not hit anyone or anything.
Another person was so obsessed with germs and dirt it became a steadfast rule for all members of the family to take off their clothes when returning home and having a shower immediately. Other compulsions include excessive counting, checking, touching, measuring, hoarding and many more.
OCD sufferers generally recognise that their compulsions are irrational but the fact that they are aware only adds to the stress and feelings of anxiety and distress that this disorder causes.
Over the years the cause of the disorder has been looked at in more depth, and research has brought up other treatment options instead of the standard anti-depressants. In fact, scientists at the US National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) are investigating whether bacteria may be a cause of OCD in children. Streptococcal bacteria, which causes strep throat, scarlet fever and other infections, can have effects on the brain that may trigger a syndrome similar to OCD.
The research, so far, suggests that an antibody against streptococcal bacteria sometimes mistakenly acts on a brain enzyme, thus disrupting communications between neurons and causing a form of obsessive compulsive and related tic disorders in children. NIMH researchers are now trying to discover how many cases of OCD in children are related to strep infections.
A quick look at other research into solutions for this disorder shows that lifestyle issues may be able to help. For example some evidence suggests that OCD may be linked to a nutritional deficiency, in particular a deficiency in B vitamins. A controlled study by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that 20 per cent of the group had abnormally low levels of vitamin B12 (Acta. Psychiartr. Scand., 1988).
Another study found that their OCD patients had significantly lower vitamin B9 levels when compared with a control group (Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci., 2005). It is not known whether correcting nutritional deficiencies by taking supplements will help OCD; however it maybe worth investigating with the help of a qualified nutritionist or practitioner.
One supplement that has been tested is inositol, a carbohydrate that was once considered part of the vitamin B-complex family. It was found to significantly reduce the severity of OCD symptoms when pitted against a placebo (Am. J. Psychiatry, 1996).
Exercise is another option looked at by researchers. The Brown Medical School in Providence, RI in the US looked at the impact of a 12-week aerobic exercise programme. By the end of the study patients found that their symptoms had significantly improved. This effect was still apparent six months later. In addition, the exercise also appeared to improve the patients’ overall sense of wellbeing (J. Nerv. Ment. Dis., 2007).
Two other alternative therapies have been researched: one is the use of herbs, and the other is the use of magnets. Researchers at New York City’s Columbia University worked with a group of sufferers whose symptoms had proved resistant to conventional drug treatments.
The researchers randomly allocated the patients to receive a non-invasive technique called ‘repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation’ which used magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. Others in the control group received a sham treatment. A 25 per cent reduction in the severity of the symptoms was seen, when compared to those receiving the sham treatment. (Int. J. Neuro psycho. Pharmacol., 2010). However another trial found no significant effects.
Finally, some studies have found meditation useful for the sufferers of OCD. In one trial it had a ‘significant and large effect’ on OCD symptoms according to researchers (J. Nerv. Ment. Dis., 2008).
The type of meditation used in this trial is known as mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing the mind on the present.
However, other types of meditation have also been trialled. A technique from Kundalini yoga was more effective than mindfulness meditation and significant improvements were seen in the OCD symptoms combined with improvements in stress levels and mood (CNS Spectr., 1999).
Awareness of the disorder is known. However, it is useful to look at these alternative possibilities to help the sufferers, their families, friends and even employers so that the sufferer can lead as normal a life as possible.