Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Substance Abuse, and Recovery 

The Features of OCD

As mentioned above, there are two primary features of OCD, according the American Psychiatric Association:

Obsessions: These consist of intrusive and repetitive images, thoughts, or urges that lead to stress or anxiety. The individual attempts to suppress these images, urges, or thoughts by using some action.

Compulsions: These are defined as behaviors or mental acts that are repeated as a result of the obsession. Repeating the behavior or thought reduces the anxiety that is associated with the obsession.

For one to actually have OCD, the above behaviors must be time-consuming. According to the American Psychiatric Association, they must consume more than one hour per day as well as cause significant stress or impairment to one’s everyday activities.

Some individuals who take drugs or medications, or who have another medical condition such as a traumatic brain injury, may produce similar types of behaviors. One cannot be diagnosed with OCD if the actions are better explained by the use of drugs or medication, a medical condition, or some other psychological condition.

A number of different specifying conditions for OCD can be present. For example, some individuals may recognize that their repetitive thoughts and behaviors are irrational, whereas others may believe them to be perfectly valid and see no need to change.

It is also important to note that there is a personality disorder that is described as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. This is quite different from the clinical disorder described above and represents a longstanding pattern of behaviors related to being obsessed with control, rigid, and fixated on the organization of minor details as opposed to experiencing the obsessions and compulsions described above.

Examples of OCD
OCD and Substance Abuse

Research has classically defined four basic types of OCD, although there are other subtypes described. The four basic subtypes are:

  • Checking
  • Contamination
  • Hoarding
  • Rumination or intrusive thought type

Most often, the rumination subtype is reserved for those who experience intrusive thoughts of a magical, religious, violent, or other nature.

One of the most common examples of OCD is the contamination type of OCD. The obsession regarding cleanliness, and recurrent thoughts related to being dirty or contaminated by germs or other substances, drive the compulsion for individuals to repeatedly wash their hands, clean themselves, and avoid any form of dirt real or imagined (such as avoiding public restrooms). This pattern of intrusive and recurring thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors to deal with the anxiety these thoughts produce (compulsion) leads to a number of issues with the individual’s ability to function in a normal manner.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the prevalence of OCD appears to be around 1-1.5 percent with female adults affected at a slightly higher rate than male adults; although in children, this pattern appears to be reversed. There are some genetic influences that appear to be associated with some people who have OCD; however, there is no definitive cause identified for OCD.

Treatment for OCD and Substance Abuse

woman seeking treatment for obsessive compulsive disorderThe most common therapy used in the treatment of OCD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that focuses on teaching people how to identify irrational thoughts and change them as well as on changing the behaviors associated with irrational beliefs. There are various forms of CBT designed specifically for the treatment of OCD.

The type of CBT that is tailor-made for individuals who have any subtype of OCD is known as exposure and response prevention therapy. This treatment has been shown to have high rates of success with OCD. Individuals confront their anxiety directly, but under conditions where they can control the anxiety. Individuals experience the results of not completing the obsessive behavior.

This can be done as the individual is using a relaxation technique or by using varying degrees of intensity, such as starting with conditions that arouse only mild anxiety and working up to conditions that invoke extreme anxiety. As the individual is exposed to these situations, anxiety will peak and then dissipate, and the person will learn that there is little to actually fear.

An approach using CBT to treat the obsessions and compulsions of OCD might concentrate on:

Identifying the individual’s obsessions (for example, “I have to be in a sterile environment,” or “Having any amount of dirt on my hands is intolerable.”)

Applying behavioral techniques, such as getting the individual to learn relaxation and stress reduction techniques

Having the individual actually face anxieties and confront them while practicing stress reduction and relaxation (or starting with situations where anxiety is relatively mild and building up to more intense situations; for example, actually having an individual get dirty during a therapy session and maintaining a state of relaxation while not allowing the person clean up)

Over time, these types of strategies and exposure techniques are associated with a reduction in anxiety, and the individual the longer needs to engage in obsessive-compulsive cycles of behavior. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the anxiety associated with irrational beliefs and the need to engage in the compulsive behavior.

Moreover, brain imaging research has indicated that the pattern of activation observed in the brains of individuals with active OCD actually changes to a more normalized state as a result of these forms of CBT. Likewise, CBT is also suited to deal with substance abuse issues in the same manner, by identifying irrational thoughts and beliefs associated with substance abuse and changing these to effect change in behavior.

If an individual is suffering from both OCD and a substance use disorder, the therapy can be applied to address both issues at the same time. Typically, it is preferential to treat co-occurring disorders together, and OCD rarely occurs in isolation. The substance abuse component would be treated in a similar manner where the individual’s irrational beliefs about how substance abuse aids the person are challenged and then more proactive attitudes and beliefs are tested. Individuals can also benefit from involvement in support groups such as 12-Step groups.

Other options for the treatment of OCD include antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications can reduce anxiety; however, these anxiolytic or anti-anxiety medications have a potential for addiction and need to be used under strict supervision of a psychiatrist. Medications approved by the Federal Drug Administration for the treatment of OCD include:

  • Anafranil (tricyclic antidepressant)
  • Luvox  (SSRI)
  • Paxil  (SSRI)
  • Prozac (SSRI)
  • Zoloft (SSRI)

Using medications, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, can aid progress in CBT sessions. The use of medications alone to treat either OCD or substance abuse does not result in the development of long-term coping strategies and behavioral change. Thus, if medication is used, it should be used in conjunction with therapy. The medication can complement the therapy, but it not a substitute for learning how to deal with the obsessions and compulsions of OCD.

There is a subset of individuals with very severe OCD that do not respond to therapy or medication.  Deep brain stimulation and psychosurgery have been used in these cases, but typically, they are not used until other options are ruled out.

Of course, this entire process is complicated by the presence of other psychiatric disorders and substance abuse issues. In complicated cases, a multidimensional approach with a team of therapists, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals may be needed.


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