Study sheds light on obsessive behaviour

FOR the first time researchers have analysed why people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) perform particular repetitive behaviours.

Previous studies suggested compulsions, like constantly washing hands, checking locks or flicking light switches, were performed to ease anxiety and distress.

But researchers from the University of Sydney wanted to find out to what extent this was the case, if there were any other reasons and if different compulsions fulfilled different needs.

“It was one of those things that was assumed, it hadn’t really been investigated,” said lead researcher Professor Vladan Starcevic.

“This really has been an understudied area.”

Researchers interviewed almost 110 adults with OCD and identified 218 different compulsions – most participants suffered from around three.

The majority had more than one reason for their behaviours and most knew it was irrational, but said it was “automatic” and uncontrollable, Prof Starcevic said.

Different compulsions satisfy different functions, he said.

The most common was washing, cleaning and checking – done to ease stress and out of fear that something “terrible” would happen if it wasn’t done.

“Someone might die or the house might burn or whatever their particular catastrophic notions are,” Prof Starcevic told AAP.

Another common compulsion was to arrange things in a certain way, paying particular attention to symmetry, and repeating this behaviour until feeling “satisfied”.

“They say: ‘It’s not complete, I need to complete it so that it looks perfect, so that it looks in order.'”

About three per cent of Australians will experience OCD at some stage in their lives.

It’s usually identified during childhood and some people will grow out of it.

“(But) the vast majority of people have these problems throughout their lives,” said Prof Starcevic.

Onset is rare after the age of 30 and there are no real triggers, he said.

“(People say) it just happened, it just gradually developed and they really couldn’t pinpoint any triggering factor,” Prof Starcevic said.

He explained the “problem” with OCD is that people: “do experience relief, but it doesn’t last very long”.

In other, more unusual cases, OCD can be expressed in mental compulsions, like counting or think about something continuously.

“In some extreme cases they will go to the police station and confess that they’ve done something wrong, whereas in reality they haven’t,” Prof Starcevic said.

Other people will touch things, or perform “rituals” such as entering and exiting through a door in a certain way.

“It’s not just that straight-forward relationship between obsessions increasing anxiety or stress and compulsions being performed to decrease anxiety or distress,” Prof Starcevic said.

Though most OCD treatment currently works this way.

“It is important in every person with (OCD) to ascertain what’s the purpose of those compulsions so we can modify our treatment approach accordingly,” he said.

The study was published in the most recent edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

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