It’s impossible to watch the news, listen to the radio, or be online without encountering various public service announcements about the importance of “hand hygiene” (regular handwashing for at least 20 seconds).
These are well-intentioned and important reminders, but for some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — particularly those who have “contamination OCD” — it can be extremely triggering.
Dr. Chad Brandt, a clinical psychologist at the McLean OCD Institute in Houston, explains why.
“The ‘O’ in OCD stands for obsession. That’s essentially an unwanted thought that gives us feelings we don’t like and want to get rid of. So when someone with OCD has those unwanted feelings, they want to do something to make it go away. That leads to a compulsion, which is the ‘C’ of OCD,” he says.
“The strongest underlying mechanism of obsessive-compulsive disorder is the inability to tolerate uncertainty,” says Anna Prudovski, clinical psychologist and director of Turning Point Psychological Services in Ontario, Canada, which specializes in treatment for OCD and anxiety.
Compulsive behaviors like excessive handwashing, she notes, are a cyclical effort to reduce uncertainty, which only exacerbates the existing anxiety. (continued)