Study Looks at Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviour

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder sometimes wash their
hands until their skin is raw and bleeding, or re-do the same load
of laundry 10 times in a day, or spend three hours leaving the house
because of the overpowering need to check and re-check whether the
door is locked.

A new study at the Anxiety Disorders Unit–affiliated with the
University of British Columbia’s Dept. of Psychiatry and based at
Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre, UBC Pavilion–will
compare different treatment methods for this debilitating mental

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is believed to affect about
two per cent of the population, or about 36,000 people in the Lower
Mainland, making it one of the most common mental disorders.

OCD is characterized by recurring, unwanted thoughts and impulses
that cause suffering and much distress. This compels sufferers to
perform ritualistic behaviours to reduce their anxiety.

“OCD is a chronic illness that may wax and wane with the amount
of stress in a person’s life, but seldom does it go away without
treatment. In fact, the longer you go without treatment the harder
it is to correct,” says Dr. Ingrid Sochting, a post-doctoral fellow
who is part of a clinical investigation team helping to conduct
the study.

The major classes of OCD include: fear of contamination, resulting
in compulsive washing and cleaning; excessive doubting, which leads
to constant checking; the need for order, symmetry and exactness;
and the need to hoard and collect.

Some also suffer from a subclass of OCD in which they have unwanted
and intrusive thoughts that are violent, sexual or blasphemous,
resulting in feelings of intense guilt.

One such patient successfully treated by Sochting was so distressed
by his violent thoughts that he hid all his knives and scissors
and bound his hands for fear of harming others, despite the fact
he had never hurt anyone in his life.

Once suicidal and unable to work, the patient, a Lower Mainland
man in his mid-30s, now holds a full-time job and is beginning to
socialize in a normal fashion.

OCD strikes males and females in equal numbers, although it tends
to begin earlier among boys, usually between the ages of six and
15, as compared with ages 20 to 29 for women.

“Most people have inappropriate or disturbing thoughts from time
to time, but what separates them from OCD sufferers is how they
respond to them,” Sochting says.

For several reasons, it takes sufferers an average of seven years
before they seek treatment, adds Dr. Kent Anderson, another post-doctoral
fellow at the Anxiety Disorders Unit.

OCD strikes otherwise capable, bright people who feel intense shame
about their obsessions and compulsions. They often become very secretive,
making it difficult to detect their condition. As well, 10 per cent
of all sufferers are pure obsessionals, who only have unwanted thoughts
and may not exhibit much in the way of compulsive behaviours.

Family members, too, often get caught up in rituals because it
is easier than trying to change the behaviours.

The study at the Anxiety Disorders Unit will compare the results
of two of the most effective psychological treatments instead of
using medications which have proven beneficial to only a minority
of sufferers.

Researchers are looking for volunteers who suffer from OCD for
the study. They will receive 12 sessions with a therapist, free
of charge, as well as follow-up assessments to ensure they make
substantial gains over time.

During the treatments, patients receive a thorough understanding
of what OCD is and how they came to suffer from it. Therapists will
gradually expose patients to situations they fear and teach them
ways of reducing both their obsessions and any ritualistic behaviours
they may have.

The study begins immediately and will run for two years with funding
from the B.C. Health Research Foundation.