OCD: students learn to take control

Photo illustration by Linnea Holbrook

Photo illustration by Linnea Holbrook

Life between the ages of 18 and 24 can carry a lot of stress as students attempt to juggle work, classes, relationships and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The anxiety that comes from a variety of stressful situations during this time can act as a trigger for anxiety disorders, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

“The college years can be a time of excitement and growth: an opportunity to learn new things, meet new friends, and make plans for your adult life. But college also brings challenges,” said Dr. Jeanne M. Fama in an article for the International OCD Foundation. “Leaving familiar people, places and things while trying to get used to new people, places and things is stressful for many students. These adjustments can be particularly challenging for folks with OCD.”

Fama said that while adjusting to a new college environment, individuals with OCD may experience an increase in obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges.

According to Designed Thinking, it has been estimated that approximately 2.3 percent of the population between ages 18 and 54 suffer from OCD, and approximately 3.3 million people in the U.S. suffer from OCD, though some estimates have been as high as 6 million.

The variance comes from how patients are diagnosed and categorized.

“Changes in physical surroundings, social life and academic routines may trigger new obsessions, or even bring back obsessions that bothered them long ago,” Fama said. “For example, changes in physical surroundings may be particularly tough for those prone to contamination concerns. They may experience urges to clean [or avoid] new and unfamiliar desks, chairs, computer keyboards, foods, utensils, showers, etc.”

Fama said this reaction may be particularly true for students living in new dorm rooms or apartments, especially if they are living with new roommates who may have different routines, habits and opinions.

“The most effective treatments for OCD include medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Treatment with medications such as SRIs and clomipramine, helps a lot of individuals with OCD,” Fama said. “If medication treatment has been helpful and they plan to continue it, make sure to make arrangements to have medications monitored and prescriptions filled when at college.”

Fama said those who are dealing with changes in their OCD because of a change in location, should discuss ways their family members can help during transition — without participating in reassurance seeking or other compulsive behaviors.

The Association for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has adapted their own version of The Serenity Prayer to recite in support groups, according to the OCD Foundation.

“Dear Higher Power, Please Grant me: The Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, (My intrusive obsessions, and other people) The Courage to change the things I can, (My fears, My compulsive behaviors and My Self) and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

The average age for the onset of actual OCD symptoms is 19, according to the International OCD Foundation.

Julie Benson (name has been changed), a freshman majoring in general studies, said she first noticed symptoms of OCD, which would often cause her to be late to class and work, when she was a teenager.

“I definitely saw it more in high school, once I started driving on my own when I was about 17,” Benson said. “When leaving my car for any tiny period of the day, I lock the door and pull on every handle if I’m by myself. I have to pull four times for each door to make sure it’s locked. The bad thing about me doing all of this is I can always tell that people stare at me from wherever they are, and I hate it.”

There are five different categories of OCD symptoms, according to the Help Guide website.

“My daily routine consists of a lot of counting every day. When I leave the house at any time I check to make sure the door is locked by turning the knob and pushing it four times,” Benson said. “It has to be on an even number — I don’t know why, it’s just always been like that.”

Benson said that every night before she goes to bed, she yells from the living room to her husband, while holding down the lock, asking if the door is locked. She said he has to reply, ‘It’s locked,’ or she will sit there until he says it, or she gets upset and will stand up until he confirms it.

Other categories listed on the Help Guide website are washers, doubters and sinners, and hoarders.

“Living away from home can also bring a sense of added responsibility. For some folks with OCD, increased responsibility can trigger obsessive worries about the safety of oneself and/or of others,” Fama said. “These worries may be accompanied by urges to ensure safety by engaging in compulsive checking, like checking to make sure that doors and windows are locked, kitchen counters are clean and appliances are unplugged.”

According to the International OCD Foundation, those who have this reaction to new surroundings should try the following coping tactics: Reflect on the past and anticipate the future.

One way to prepare for the college transition is to reflect upon personal history, consider ways in which OCD has affected daily routine and try to anticipate ways in which it could become problematic in a new environment.

“Another thing I am OCD about is that the TV volume always has to be on an even number. For some reason I can always tell when it’s on an odd number,” Benson said. “At school it always took me a little bit to get to class because I took too long checking the doors.”

Benson said that growing up, she had more symptoms, like eating M&M’s by even numbers, but her OCD has become less intense over the years.

“The sad thing is that sometimes when I lock my door and walk away from it, I’ll freak out because I’m not sure if I locked it so I have to go back and double check and start counting again,” Benson said. “I have gotten better with things like eating food by even numbers, but I always freak out with locking things.”

According to Helpguide, washers are afraid of contamination.

“Washers usually have cleaning or hand-washing compulsions. Doubters and sinners are afraid that if everything isn’t perfect or done just right something terrible will happen or they will be punished. Hoarders fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away. They compulsively hoard things that they don’t need or use,” according to Helpguide.

“I have to tell myself that something is locked and convince myself, because if I don’t, I’ll go back and recheck everything,” Benson said. “Also, if I plugged in my iron or turned on the oven then I always check two to six times before I leave the house to make sure it’s off or a cord isn’t plugged in and touching something. It’s hard to explain.”

Benson said she never thought about going to a support group or using the 12-step program that the AOC implements because she never thought her symptoms were bad enough.

“There are some symptoms I don’t have anymore and then some that I will go back to. It’s weird, and I don’t know why I do it,” Benson said. “It stinks some days because if I’m late, then I have to rush through checking the locks and counting in my head, and I don’t feel as confident in my counting, so I end up freaking out all day.”

Benson said she thinks her OCD was caused by having her own car because she felt responsible to keep things safe and became more obsessed with making sure things were locked and counted.

“As a kid, some of the doors were jacked up, so because of my OCD tendencies, I felt it was my duty to keep everything locked and safe,” Benson said. “At some point, I broke a lock at my house because I pressed the lock down so many times check it over and over, so my dad had to replace it.”

Benson said she feels positive about the future.

“I have heard from people that if you do your routines around your children they will end up doing them too,” Benson said. “Knowing that makes me hope I can stop more of my tendencies before I have kids one day and it ends up affecting their lives. I think I can do it.”

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