"Divert, Distract, Relax, Gain control - after all it's just your mind!" - these are some of the tips or techniques that well-meaning friends & family give, when someone reveals (if at all they do) that he or she is grappling with a constant stream of intrusive, unwanted thoughts, doubts or fears.
But alas! The person has tried it all and even more. But only to be plagued with more and more menacing thoughts.
They could be suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) - a type of disorder which affects 3 out of every 100 people.
Normally the human brain is designed to filter out what's dangerous and what's not. In OCD, the filter becomes dysfunctional, the person experiences repetitively intrusive irrational thoughts, doubts or fears concerning harm, danger or disease.
A person might have obsessive fears of contamination or obsessive doubts about safety. Sometimes they are compelled to think in a way which they do not want to - called 'contrast thinking'
For example: A pious person might compelled to think about an obscene word or image while in a temple.
These thoughts which just pop into one's mind are extremely embarrassing and guilt provoking. The sufferer is then compelled to perform certain behaviors over and again called compulsions in order to ward off or neutralize the bad thoughts or to make sure that they are secure or clean.
For example, a sufferer might check repetitively whether he has locked his house or might keep washing his hands repeatedly.
Sometimes the obsessions & compulsions have no link at all. The sufferer might believe that if he does not complete a task a particular way, someone he loves might die.
The person knows it is silly, odd, unnecessary but is unable to control thinking about it. That's why people with OCD often suffer in silence and this is why it is called 'the silent disease'.
OCD is believed to be related to low levels of a chemical called serotonin in the brain. There appears to be a genetic vulnerability to OCD, but why it happens to some people remains an elusive area of research as yet.
But the good news is that a lot of treatment methods work. Medications help balance the low levels of brain serotonin. Cognitive behavioral therapy and more specifically exposure & response prevention (ERP) are specialized methods of psychotherapy proven to be effective.
Having OCD does not mean one is crazy or that one has to attempt to deal with it all alone. Help is available. Just seek out. No lab tests will diagnose OCD. Talking to your psychiatrist will put things in a better perspective. OCD is very much an illness like hypertension or asthma. Treat it early! Treat it right!