A Journey Within and Beyond OCD

One pattern that may surface in a woman’s life is medical science as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If we can look past its pathologizing tone, forgiving the medical model its knack for phrasing things in a way that makes us feel like there is something terribly wrong with us, we can see that the title is apt. It captures the basics – obsession and compulsion. Obsession happens when our mind cannot let go of something when it loops and repeats and fixates.

The mind tends to do this anyway – on any given day; we will have themes that are revisited in mind with surprising frequency if we are present enough to take note. Obsession is a key feature of the thinking mind. However, many of our obsessions are just mild annoyances and do not deeply disrupt our lives. Even disruptive obsessions are known to most – for example, when we become obsessed with someone, we have a crush on, our inability to stop thinking about them distracts us from work.

We probably know the state of being overly fixated on something in a way that we, and others, my sense is not completely balanced or healthy. For any woman with substance addiction issues, she will be able to recognize the flavor of obsession – the way her mind can be captured by the orbital pull of her drug and never quite escapes its gravity. Compulsion, the behavioral response to an obsession, is an experience that most of us also know to some extent.

It is the feeling of needing or having to do something, not out of choice, but more out of being driven to do something. As in “I’m not ok if I don’t do this” and “I will not be ok until I do this.” This could be a compulsive need to clean, to check your appearance in the mirror over and over, to turn back (again) to make extra sure you locked the car, to reach into your purse repeatedly to make sure your wallet is still there. These little behavioral blurts, while not particularly rational, soothe our worries for the time being.

Severe compulsion overrides our free will, and when we are compulsive, we feel like the behavior is not a voluntary choice but more like something that must be done to make the obsessive thinking quiet down. Even if we see it as destructive – as when we compulsively pick our skin, over-exercise, overeat, shop, check our phones, whatever it is – and even if we judge ourselves harshly for it – we still may find ourselves unable to stop.

When we try to stop, we are so bothered by obsessive thoughts – that we are fat, that our house is messy, whatever it is that our mind is pestering us with – that we indulge the compulsion to try to get the negative thoughts to ease up. For substance abusers, we know this state of compulsion – demoralizing and degrading; it is sometimes called “the monkey on my back” in recovery circles.

When thinking about a diagnosis and whether we might have it, it’s helpful to ask oneself, not do I have this pattern at all – because we all do to some extent – but rather, is this pattern one of my core life themes? Does it show up in my life so strongly that it influences my life, my work, my relationships? Is it part of my destiny to overcome this? Is this pattern a problem for me?

Someone who feels that OCD is part of her destiny may find that she cannot control her thoughts and behaviors even when she realizes they are unreasonable or excessive. She may find that she spends more time than she wants to with these thoughts and behaviors – maybe hours. She may get little pleasure from her behaviors, and her relief may be short-lived, leading her to engage in the compulsion one more time just minutes later. She may recognize the pattern to take up too much of her energy, causing trouble in things that matter to her – her relationships, creativity, or calling.

OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and as with all anxiety patterns, the key experience for sufferers is a terrible fear. When a person has OCD, her uncontrollable, recurring thoughts, urges, and mental images are centered on terror-inducing themes: contamination by aggressive germs in the environment, for example, or being eaten up from within by psychological “badness” being dirty and not able to get clean. She urges to repeat behaviors repeatedly to resolve the fear-inducing situation being pointed out by the obsessive thoughts.

From the outside, we may see the absurdity of washing hands repeatedly – probably one thorough wash is good enough to remove germs, and if it isn’t, well, you cannot control everything, right? Wrong. From the OCD mindset, you must control everything, or else terrible danger will invade you – in that context, again and more seem to be tools worth trying to use against the threat. In OCD, the mind is obsessed with dangers and pushes us to enact behavior to ward off the dangers.

Whenever problems with anxiety exist, we are looking at a pattern of getting triggered into fight-flight too often and for too long. The body’s security system has a hair-trigger. It will send the nervous system into emergency mode over dangers that others would call “unlikely to happen” and often “impossible to control even if they did happen, so may as well not waste time worrying about it” and “not happening right now so who cares.”

The person with OCD body is frequently in a prolonged state of disaster preparedness: shallow breath, rapid heart rate, sweating, sense of constriction, tunnel vision, black and white thinking. She experiences trouble coming down from that state of hyperarousal into calm and may not know how to do this without indulging her compulsions or using drugs.

For a person with OCD, it must be understood and deeply, compassionately accepted that she does not, while in the grips of this pattern anyway, have sovereignty over herself, but is rather in a state of subjugation to her fear. When we have OCD, we cannot snap out of it: by definition, our horrible obsessions are uncontrollable– we cannot stop them from appearing in our minds through sheer effort (or else they would not be obsessions).

Compulsions are uncontrollable as well – we cannot stop ourselves from doing them (or else they would not be compulsions). Some common themes for OCD obsessions are fear of being contaminated, such as germs, infection, or dirt; and intrusive, unwanted thoughts about disturbing, taboo, or off-color subjects, like inappropriate sex and violence. For example, a person may be trying to have a conversation and suddenly experience a violent image of harming that person, harming themselves, or a grotesque, disturbing sexual image.

This frightening intrusion into her thought-stream understandably upsets a person. Common repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought include excessive hand-washing, cleaning, and personal hygiene; arranging items in a specific order and way; checking and rechecking on things, such as whether the oven is off or the door is locked. The rituals and repetitions may have a superstitious quality to them. The sufferer believes that if she performs her acts perfectly and without any gap in vigilance, then external events can be controlled.

Understandably, people with OCD often try to help themselves by steering clear of situations that trigger their obsessions, or they may use drugs, alcohol, or prescriptions to relieve themselves of their acute anxiety. If OCD therapy, healing, and recovery are a part of your story, with the right support, you can find a solution for yourself that creatively addresses the trouble of relentless, repetitive, intrusive, disturbing thoughts that fill you with fear.

Integrative OCD Therapy Programs and Recovery for Women

Likewise, you can discover ways to stop those compulsions you currently are driven to in your attempts to relieve your fear. Effective OCD therapy and treatments for anxiety disorders begin with restoring the ability to self-soothe, to master the maneuver of shifting gears back out of fight-flight. It also involves changing your relationship to those fear-based thoughts that pop in uninvited, from a state of submission to them to a state of empowered, neutral observation and the calm challenge of them.

At a certain stage of OCD therapy and recovery, you are restored to your natural right to decide for yourself which thoughts you care to act on and which ones you do not. Some of the many holistic recovery tools offered here at Villa Kali Ma, all of which are potentially useful in your OCD therapy journey to recovery, includes (but is not limited to):

If you are seeking OCD therapy, treatment, and support, please know that you will find a place of shelter with us at Villa Kali Ma and that we will meet this part of your destiny with respect for the role it plays in you becoming the full extent of who you are. At Villa Kali Ma, we will treasure your OCD alongside the parts of you that you may more easily love because, in the words of Pema Chodron, “our hang-ups, unfortunately, or fortunately, contain our wealth.”

Hidden in your OCD lies the key to your greatest gifts, whatever those might be – we would like to help you find out what they are. If you know the pain of looping inside ever-tightening vicious circles, please come, as you are, to Villa Kali Ma – we will help you step out of those circles and into the expanding spiral of OCD therapy and long-lasting recovery.


What is OCD?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), used to identify a form of suffering that centers on extreme anxiety coupled with compulsive behaviors.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterized by an overabundance of distressing thoughts, called obsessions, paired with ritualistic behaviors aimed at relieving the anxiety being generated by those thoughts, called compulsions.

A cluster of fearful thoughts becomes an obsession when it has unpleasant, compelling, magnified characteristics. Obsessions are fear based, looping, and relentless, leaving us in a constant state of uncertainty, suggesting we must take action right now to avoid a terrible outcome, or to get some needed relief. 

Compulsions are ritualistic behaviors, repetitive acts performed without a sense of choice or joy (the sufferer feels they have to do these acts). Many times the compulsive acts work to cause obsessions to quiet down for a short period of time. 

Over time, however, compulsive acts work less and less well to abate a person’s fears, so more and more time is spent engaging in behaviors meant to reduce anxiety. Well-known examples of OCD-like symptoms include when someone washes their hands repeatedly to cope with contamination fears, or repeatedly checks stoves and locks. 

The signature feeling of OCD contains an element of what you could call superstition or magical thinking, where a person believes that external events may be controlled through performing small acts.   

As is the case with many disorders, what distinguishes clinical OCD from the more commonplace, lighter version of the same condition, which most of us can relate to to a certain degree, is severity. To receive a clinical diagnosis for OCD, you would be experiencing significant impairment to your ability to cope with the demands of daily life.

How to recognize the symptoms of OCD

If you are concerned that you may have OCD, the following list of symptoms may be helpful as a reference. Please keep in mind that obsessive-compulsive traits and patterning are considered pathological only once they represent a significant disruption to your ability to live your life. 

Obsession symptoms

OCD obsessions are repetitive, relentless, unwanted thoughts, images, or urges to action that are intrusive and cause distress. You may attempt to ignore or clear them from your mind by taking a certain action or series of acts. Obsessions typically pop into your mind in a distracting, demanding way when you’re trying to focus on other topics or perform other activities.

Common obsessions include: 

  • Fear of contamination, infection, or dirt, for example from touching objects that others have touched
  • Excessive self-doubt, questioning, and going over decisions, struggles tolerating uncertainty, inability to accept unknowns
  • Suddenly having horrifying thoughts or images of aggression and losing control, showing pictures of self-harm or harm to another, including sexual and violent imagery
  • Distressing thoughts about religion, morality, sexuality, perversion, violence or other upsetting topics on repeat
  • Fear of acting inappropriately in public or suddenly shouting obscenities
  • Persistent, looping, repetitive doubts that you’ve turned off the stove, locked doors, etc
  • Preoccupation with how objects are arranged, disturbed by noticing asymmetry or disorder in the environment, desire to order things

Compulsion symptoms

OCD compulsions are behaviors that you feel compelled to perform on repeat. These repetitive actions are aimed at reducing the anxiety you feel, that has been generated and amplified by the relentless obsessions. Compulsions may be aimed at preventing something unwanted from happening. Compulsions bring no pleasure however, and often bring only short-term relief from fear.

Compulsions may take the form of invented rules or rituals that must be followed, to turn the volume down on your fear and stress when obsessions are in your head. Although these compulsions may feel somewhat effective to you, an outside observer might say these actions are not realistically actually solving the problem they’re supposed to address. In this way, they may feel superstitious, religious, or magical. 

Common compulsions include:

  • Obsessive washing and cleaning of one’s body or environment
  • Washing your hands too frequently, such that your hands become chapped
  • Avoiding physical contact even with healthy people and clean environments, because of germs
  • Checking doors and stoves over and over again, difficulty leaving the house without performing multiple rituals
  • Counting in certain patterns and orders, repeating sequences and numbers, or reciting prayers on repeat in one’s head
  • Extreme orderliness, imposition of one’s orderliness on others, such as insisting on arranging objects to all face the same way
  • Excessive rigidity around routines

The causes of obsessive compulsive disorder

There is no single cause of obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Mainstream scientific consensus at this time favors a theory of genetic or biological factors. 

OCD appears to be connected to the frontal cortex and the thalamus. OCD may be related to the complex interplay of brain messaging that regulates emotions, choices, reward-based decisions, and goals. It may also connect into motor control and impulses, suggesting an impairment in the ability to appropriately assess danger and evaluate impulses to respond with action. 

For a person with OCD, certain signals may be out of whack, such that the brain is not able to turn off inner notifications of danger and suggestions to act. These biological theories do not necessarily explain why OCD is present, however, even if areas of the brain involved in OCD’s operations have been identified.

You are more likely to develop OCD yourself if a close family member of yours has OCD, which suggests a strong family systems and/or genetic component. Compulsions may be learned behaviors. We may learn in our families that certain behaviors are necessary to be safe and included in love.

People with OCD have more fear-based schemas (core, deeply-held, reality-shaping beliefs) than the average population. People with OCD seem to also share a specific schema that causes them to fear their own thoughts more than the rest of us, believing that their thoughts are dangerous. People with OCD may have more trouble understanding that thoughts are, in and of themselves, only thoughts and not necessarily realities in the physical world. 

How such schemas get to be in the mind of OCD sufferers is not totally known, however some see connections between certain extreme religions, harsh parenting, rigid social expectations that emphasize conformity and normalcy above all, and fear-based scientific or religious mindsets or paradigms.

Other theories of the origin of OCD suggest that OCD represents a conflict within the psyche, related to the requirement to be good, compliant, and obedient in order to be safe.

How does OCD affect day-to-day life

When people struggle with OCD, they experience impacts that make day-to-day life difficult. The intrusive thoughts that enter a person’s mind all of a sudden are distressing and distracting. 

The thoughts have a feeling of urgency and primacy such that they are difficult to ignore, so a person with OCD feels pressed to stop other tasks and address the worries first. OCD obsessions center around disturbing and even alarming concepts, so the sense of needing to set aside everything else and deal with these concerns can be quite strong.

The compulsions which then feel necessary to perform to ease the fears also take a fair amount of time for people with OCD. Hours may be spent in preparation for leaving the house, cleaning, washing hands, or performing other forms of checks and rituals. 

In the domain of work, a simple task such as sending out an email may require excessive checking and rechecking to make sure wording, formatting, length and so on is perfect, out of fear of social inappropriateness or somehow being a source of a chain of unwanted consequences. The need to monitor and control oneself and the environment to feel reassurance from inner-sourced feelings of danger takes psychological energy and physical effort. 

People with OCD therefore, may require much, much more time to get through certain stages and tasks of daily living, as these are interrupted by harassing thoughts and urges and needs that have to be addressed before the person feels they can move forward. Avoidance and control behaviors take extra time and resources, such as frequent handwashing, rewashing clean dishes, using new bath products every time one showers, and so on. 

Those that struggle with ordering and arranging may spend very large amounts of time maintaining a perfectly ordered house, requiring multiple checks throughout the day. Should something be out of place or order according to their own complex internal systems, time must be taken to make the corrections (make sure objects are evenly spaced, facing the right direction, in the right order, and so on). 

A person will OCD will not be able to relax or feel at ease enough to focus on other tasks until relief has been achieved through performance of compulsions. 

Treatment options for OCD

If you believe you may be coping with symptoms of OCD, you will probably find it helpful and beneficial to work with a mental health professional or other kind of specialist to help you find better ways to respond to the condition. You do not have to suffer forever under OCD, as there are treatment options for OCD which have helped many others recover and rebalance. There are a couple of approaches to therapy that are commonly used for OCD treatment.

One effective approach for the treatment of OCD is called Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP. This treatment option consists of a therapist gradually exposing you to the things that trigger your compulsive behavior, after first identifying which situations appear to be linked to the OCD patterning. An ERP therapist helps you learn strategies for responding to the presence of an obsession effectively, without resorting to problematic or excessively time-consuming compulsions. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is also useful for helping break the cycle of OCD. At the thought level, it can be an essential tool for really clarifying how irrational and superstition obsessions are. CBT works effectively with an OCD sufferer’s core schemas relating to danger, contamination, one’s own virtue or sinfulness, and the necessity as well as effectiveness of vigilance and control as a way to prevent unwanted aspects of life. Essentially, people with OCD need help addressing cognitive distortions which have them trapped in believing that the world depends on their monitoring, checking, fixing, and preventing bad things from happening. 

CBT will also help with the behavioral end. The OCD cycle begins with obsessive thoughts, which don’t seem to go away, which lead to states of terrible anxiety, which then seek to be relieved through compulsive acts. The person with OCD struggles because even if they do not want to obey their obsessions, or can see that they are irrational and lead nowhere, the person experiences that if they do not perform the required act, pressure grows more and more insistent and uncomfortable. 

Part of OCD treatment with behavioral therapy, therefore, is to find alternative ways for releasing the tension and severe anxiety without actually performing a compulsion. Changing actions, behaviors and patterns, one finds better ways of coping that are less destructive and time consuming. 

Emotional healing is also required for people with OCD because they often have psychological experiences that are linked to their fears. Working with art therapies, Parts Work, and talk therapies such as those provided at Villa Kali Ma can help heal the emotional wounds that are connected to believing one is living in a dangerous world that can only be managed with states of hypervigilance, control, obedience, and perfectionistic goodness. 

From a holistic perspective, mindfulness meditation is extremely helpful for increasing awareness of the mind, emotional body, and urges to action. Yoga, exercise, and dietary support help heal the brain, body and nervous system to be less in the state of severe worry. Worry has nowhere to land in a relaxed, safe-feeling body. Hypnotherapy, acupuncture, herbs, and massage have proven links to reducing anxiety from the body level for the same reason. 

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