Wednesday, 09 August 2017 07:17

The Physical and Spiritual Aspects of OCD

Written by  Jessica Gibbs-Fernandez, Ph.D.
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Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a hard task, and it is even harder to live with it. The first part of this article is technical but important information to understand this disorder, and the latter part incorporates the spiritual portion and may help provide some relief. The basic definition given by the National Institute of Mental Health states, “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” But where do these come from? And what can be done?


Let’s start with the most important part, “The Brain”. The brain is an amazing organ in the human body. Without it we could not survive the world around us. Not only does it control the body’s motor function, organs’ function, and interpret information coming from all of our senses, but many other amazing things.The brain is responsible for interpreting threats that could potentially harm us and responding accordingly (what is known as the fight or flight response). Everyone has fleeting thoughts that can be seen as just that “fleeting” or “irrational”. However, the brain can send information that could potentially be misinterpreted by an individual.  This is where a disorder like OCD can start.


An example many mothers can relate to would be a new mother, already anxious with a newborn, going down the stairs and the brain sends the thought that the mother could drop the baby. The brains “intent” is for the mother to hold tightly, hold the rail, or just be extra careful. Many would do exactly that, but there are individuals that interpret that information not as a caution, but as a possibility. The new mother now believes she will drop her baby, and the thought increases her anxiety, so she begins a “ritual” that helps her feel some relief from her fear of dropping the baby. She may start going up and down the stairs a number of times - maybe her anxiety isn’t lowered until she repeats that five times - and then she can continue with other activities until the anxiety or fear returns. A distinction of this disorder is that it becomes debilitating since it begins to disrupt daily life.


Every individual is different, but the most common obsessions are related to fears of harming someone (e.g. baby), fear of contamination or germs, unwanted thoughts about sex or religion, and the need to have symmetry or perfect order. The common behavioral responses or compulsions are excessive cleaning, ordering, checking, and counting.  


But we are not only physical beings, we are spiritual as well, and both aspects are important to understand OCD and to treat it.  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is typically treated with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. We can’t underestimate the intensity and struggle sufferers go through when they don’t seek professional help or take necessary medications. Therapy usually entails psychoeducation on OCD and the stress response, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (understanding thoughts and challenging them), exposure and response prevention and others. But, we can also rely on God and the spiritual aspects of OCD to recover and work through it.


First, like with the example of the new mother, she is responding to her fear of dropping her baby and feels guilty and sinful with even “just the thought”. Understanding that the thoughts are not definite temptations to sin is an important step in beginning to see the obsessions differently (not “conceiving the desire” described in James 1:13-15). By observing the thoughts, “take captive every thought”, we can then start to “demolish” these thoughts to “make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) rather than against his love and grace.


Second, individuals who are debilitated by obsessions and act out their compulsions steer away from God’s main intent and desire to love” God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). When the mind is preoccupied with obsessive thoughts we are unable to focus and direct our spirit to God.


Finally, a big component of the anxiety behind OCD is the uncertainty that if the individual does not act according to their compulsions something bad will happen or their fear will be real. This is where faith comes in. It will be uncomfortable to not play out a compulsion (as learned in therapy with CBT or exposure and response prevention) when anxious, but a component of therapy is having faith that the anxiety will decrease. If we look at 1 Peter 5:7, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” can help the individual trust God (and the therapist) in this long, strenuous process of recovery.  Psalm 23:1-6 shows God’s love and care and can become a spiritual tool for an individual with OCD to mediate on.


The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


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