In blanket terms, OCD is characterized by two things: obsessions (intrusive, recurring thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors, typically repetitive, that are performed to lessen the anxiety of the thoughts). But the disorder can be difficult to identify because it can present in so many different ways.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines OCD as a “disease of doubt,” in which individuals experience “pathological doubt” because they have trouble distinguishing between probable and highly unlikely events.
“The sufferer can get stuck in something of a behavioral loop, where the thoughts recur and the compulsions recur non-stop,” Hyman told The Huffington Post. “They repeat many times during the day, causing a great deal of impairment to the person’s ability to function.”
In the case of “S,” the anonymous man interviewed on Invisibilia, he was able to seek therapy and the thoughts subsided, but what about other people like him?
Here are four important truths about OCD that will change the way you see the disease.
Obsessions are more than just worries.
The obsessions that characterize OCD occur in the mind “spontaneously and intrusively,” Hyman said, adding: “There is tremendous fear and anxiety attached to the thought.”
Researchers believe OCD thoughts are the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, which results in an inability to filter out undesired thoughts, possibly due to low serotonin levels.
However, Hyman emphasizes that the thoughts of people with OCD are not substantially different than the thoughts of people without OCD. Research on the content of thoughts has shown that anyone can have an out-of-character intrusive thought (for instance, you might think, What if I was to push this old lady into the oncoming train? when standing on the subway platform). The person with OCD, however, relates to it in a different way — they might grossly misinterpret the thought to mean that they are a dangerous person, whereas the non-OCD person will not take the thought so seriously.