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OCD and Addiction

If you’re struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, you may feel that you’re being controlled by obsessive thoughts and cravings that intrude on your daily activities. Compulsive behavior is a hallmark of addiction, a condition that’s characterized by continuous drug seeking and drug use in spite of the harmful consequences. Compulsive thoughts and repetitive actions are also classic symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. In fact, the line between OCD and addiction can become blurry when someone who suffers from OCD is also abusing drugs or alcohol.

What Is OCD?

We all experience irrational fears or worries now and then. If you’ve ever gone back to your apartment to double-check your locks or washed your hands several times after being exposed to germs, you know what it’s like to experience obsessive-compulsive behavior on a small scale. For those who’ve been diagnosed with OCD, these anxieties and compulsive behaviors are uncontrollable and overwhelming. Like drug or alcohol addiction, OCD may make it difficult or impossible to lead a healthy, stable life.

Being anxious and fearful all the time — even if these fears are irrational — can put a tremendous strain on your psyche. People who suffer from OCD use repetitive, ritualistic behaviors to relieve the stress of their obsessions. They may believe that if they don’t wash their hands 100 times a day or count all the cracks in the sidewalk, something terrible will happen to them or a loved one. According to the Nemours Foundation, typical obsessive-compulsive thoughts or behaviors may include:

  • A compulsive need for order and cleanliness
  • A fear of germs and parasites
  • A fear of getting sick or being injured
  • A fear that your loved ones will be hurt
  • A preoccupation with certain numbers or symbols
  • Rituals that involve counting
  • Rituals that involve repetitive cleaning or grooming
  • Repeatedly checking locks or electrical appliances
  • Hoarding collectible items, containers or trash

Although the exact cause of OCD is unknown, the Mayo Clinic notes that the condition is related to an underproduction of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects your mental stability and mood. OCD is a chronic disorder that may stay with you for a lifetime, but the symptoms can be successfully managed with psychotherapy and antidepressant medications that enhance the way the brain processes serotonin.

*How Common Is OCD, and How Important Is Treatment?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 1 percent of the population in the United States (about 2.2 million adults) meets the criteria for this disabling condition. Out of this number:

  • Fifty percent, or 0.5 percent of American adults, suffer from severe OCD.
  • The average age at which OCD symptoms begin is 19 years old.
  • The total number of life years lost due to neuropsychiatric disorders like OCD is 28.47, more than heart disease or cancer.
  • In 2008, only 58.7 percent of American adults who suffered from a severe mental illness received outpatient therapy, medication or inpatient treatment.

How Are OCD and Addiction Related?

It’s not uncommon for people with OCD to use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. When you’re anxious and afraid, alcohol or tranquilizers can take the edge off your anxiety and may make you feel that you’re temporarily free from the grip of your obsessive thoughts. Unfortunately, those thoughts usually return after the effects of the chemical substances wear off. In fact, illicit drugs and alcohol can actually worsen OCD symptoms, giving this disorder even more power over your life.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, OCD is a disorder that usually develops gradually, and many people live with the disorder for years before getting treatment. In the meantime, drugs or alcohol may be used to control the symptoms. The sooner signs of OCD can be detected, the sooner you can start addressing your compulsive thoughts and behaviors with counseling and psychotherapeutic medication instead of illegal chemical substances.

Like drug or alcohol addiction, having OCD can interfere with your daily life, making it difficult to hold down a job, maintain close personal relationships or pursue the interests that matter to you. Repetitive rituals may make you consistently late for work and may cause you to miss social activities. People who have OCD may also have the symptoms of eating disorders, depression or clinical anxiety. If you self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, you may also be affected by the physical, emotional and social ramifications of substance abuse, such as:

  • Financial difficulties
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • A need to hide your addiction from friends or employers
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to interest you
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Thoughts of suicide

Where Can I Get Help for OCD and Substance Abuse?

A study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that 27 percent of the 323 study participants met the criteria for a substance abuse disorder as well as OCD. Seventy percent of the study participants reported that they began to express the signs of OCD at least one year before they started to abuse drugs or alcohol. This study indicates that early intervention and treatment for OCD in the best exclusive residential addiction treatment facility may help you avoid getting caught in the cycle of self-medicating with illegal substances.

If you feel that your life is being driven by forces beyond your control, discovering that there’s a name for your condition and a solution to your symptoms can come as a huge relief. But if you have a dual diagnosis of OCD and a substance use disorder (SUD), getting the right kind of help can be challenging. Many mainstream rehabilitation centers aren’t equipped to handle the needs of clients with OCD, who require intensive counseling, medication therapy and special accommodations for their disorder. If you’re unemployed or underemployed because of OCD and addiction, you may need assistance with treatment fees, public transportation and child care.

Addiction specialists who work with obsessive-compulsive clients must have empathy, understanding and specialized training in counseling clients with a dual diagnosis. If you suffer from OCD and addiction, you need comprehensive treatment for both conditions in order to recover successfully.