Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often gets made light of as people may use it to jokingly describe someone’s quirks or “uptight” way of doing things. However, OCD is a very serious condition that can be distressing to people who have it, and their distress can lead them to use drugs and alcohol to cope with it.

Here, we will look at what OCD is and how the disorder can lead to substance abuse and addiction.

First, What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is more than just someone’s seemingly strange routine or absurdly strict way of doing things. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines it as “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, [recurring] thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”

The Mayo Clinic explains that OCD is characterized by “a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions).” According to the clinic, an individual’s obsessions and compulsions can disrupt their daily activities, causing them a great deal of distress.

On the other side of that is if the person tries to ignore or stop their obsessions and compulsions, they will feel only more distress. So, when a person acts in a certain way or carries out a routine, they are likely doing so to ease the stress they feel.

Unfortunately, while these actions work for the short-term, they are ineffective over the long term. Disturbing thoughts or urges usually return, making the person repeat what is called ritualistic behavior. Mayo Clinic describes this loop as the “vicious cycle of OCD.

The exact cause of OCD is unknown. Several factors are thought to play a role in its development, however, such as:

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • The structure and function of one’s brain

Trauma is also thought to raise the risks of someone developing OCD as well.

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How OCD Presents in Daily Life

OCD is a combination of obsessions and compulsions, and each presents differently. According to the NIMH, “obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety.”

These obsessions can present as a fear of germs or contamination, having things in a certain order, or unwanted thoughts about certain topics, such as religion or sex.

NIMH says that “compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought.” Examples of compulsions include excessive hand-washing or cleaning or compulsive counting.

It is important to note that people who live with OCD spend a lot of time managing this anxiety disorder, which is not exactly something they can help. Some people with the disorder can spend at least an hour every day on their thoughts or behaviors. To escape this, some people seek relief wherever they can find it, and drugs and alcohol provide that comfort for them.

How OCD can Lead to Substance Use and Addiction

Many people use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate so that they feel like they can deal with the distressing symptoms of mental health disorders that make daily life challenging. This is quite common in general when it comes to mental illnesses. Any of the following can be signs of mental illnesses include:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Excessive tension or worrying
  • Appetite or weight changes
  • Sharp bursts of energy
  • Sleep disorders (e.g., insomnia)
  • Racing thoughts or rapid speech
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Strong feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Little to no interest in activities
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Numbness
  • Concentration or focus problems
  • Impaired judgment or impulsivity
  • Restlessness

People with OCD tend to have excessive tension and worry. The intrusion this mental disorder inflicts on the mind can come in the form of racing thoughts. It can cause someone to have an inability to experience pleasure. There are other behavioral criteria on the aforementioned list that people with OCD experience.

Some people with OCD turn to addictive substances to ease the anxiety and other upsetting feelings, thoughts, and situations brought on by their obsessions and compulsions.

While they may get immediate results from doing this, drinking or using drugs is not a healthy or sustainable coping strategy. Substance use, especially when it’s chronic or excessive, only worsens OCD and sets the stage for a person to develop problematic substance use and addiction.

Alcohol and other depressant drugs, such as opioids, can numb the mind, thoughts, and feelings of a person struggling with OCD. While under the influence, they do not have to think about intrusive thoughts or actions they encounter when they are sober. When the effects of the drug wear off, however, they may feel worse.

Recognizing the Signs of Addiction

It is not always easy to tell when someone is battling addiction and OCD at the same time. However, one major sign of substance abuse is when a person compulsively seeks out drugs or alcohol and makes that their main priority no matter what. This often means friends and family, relationships, jobs, are abandoned or ignored.

Addiction rewires a person’s brain to focus only on satisfying a craving, so this is why the illness is dangerous. Even if a person stops using a drug after chronic use, they can always go into an uncomfortable withdrawal period that ends with them picking up the drug again just so they can stop feeling ill. This on-again, off-again cycle, which is similar to OCD patterns, can be deadly if a person relapses, takes too much of a drug, and dies from an overdose.

A person who is going through this can experience and display:

  • Extreme changes in mood
  • Confused thinking
  • Increased isolation
  • Thoughts of suicide and/or self-harm

You may also notice these other signs, per NAMI:

  • Loss of control over the alcohol or drug use
  • Feeling unable to function normally without substance use
  • High tolerance for addictive substances
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using substances
  • Sudden shifts in behavior (severe mood swings)
  • Substance use takes place amid dangerous conditions, situations
  • Engaging in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, sharing dirty needles

This list is not exhaustive, and you may notice signs in a loved one that are not listed here. If you see any behavior in either yourself or a loved one, now is the time to seek professional help.

Getting Help for OCD and Addiction

If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD and drug or alcohol use, you can get help to treat both disorders at the same time. Professional treatment is highly recommended, and there are programs designed to help people address both conditions concurrently.

A mental health program can identify what your needs are and customize a program that addresses them specifically. Any kind of treatment for substance use and mental health disorders should keep the individual at the forefront, making sure they receive the recovery they need.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Addresses Substance Abuse and OCD

Treatment programs for dual diagnosis, also known as co-occurring disorders, help people who are struggling with OCD and substance abuse. If you have both, you are advised to look for programs that specifically target both together so that you receive therapy methods and techniques that address the challenges of both disorders at the same time.

If you are actively using drugs or alcohol, your mental health program may start with medical detoxification to remove the substance and toxins from your system. Detox stabilizes a patient so that they can move onto a treatment program where they can start working to understand their addiction more.

This treatment program can take place at a facility that offers residential treatment, such as Vista Pines Health does, or in another setting such as a partial hospitalization program (PHP) or an intensive outpatient program. Whichever setting is used, the patient should receive continuing care and psychotherapies that promote their health and well-being.

Antidepressants can also be prescribed for OCD treatment. The four that have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are:

  • Luvox (fluvoxamine)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Zoloft (sertraline)

Another reason to seek treatment for OCD is to confirm if the condition is OCD or other conditions that can present with several of the same symptoms. The Mayo Clinic addresses this possibility, writing, “It’s sometimes difficult to diagnose OCD because symptoms can be similar to those of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia or other mental health disorders.”

The clinic also advises that a person can have OCD and another mental health disorder. A physician can diagnose the condition and prescribe treatment for it, it writes.

Have OCD and an SUD? Vista Pines Health Can Help

Vista Pines Health serves the South Florida community with mental health treatment for various disorders, including OCD. We offer our clients privacy and comfort as they come to our facility to focus on and receive care for a mental health disorder. We also treat dually diagnosed clients whose OCD led them to develop an addiction. We have a partnership with another facility that treats patients with substance use disorders (SUDs).

We keep our staff-to-client ratios slow to ensure our clients get the care they need and deserve. Call us today to learn more about Vista Pines Health and how we can help you or your loved one manage their OCD and treat their SUD. You can take back your life and get on the path to freedom, and we can show you how. Reach out today.

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