Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is closely tied to increased rates of drug addiction. Of the more than two million people who experience symptoms of OCD, 25 percent also meet the medical criteria for a substance use disorder.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by obsessive thoughts and a compulsion toward ritualistic behaviors to ward off unwanted thoughts, feelings, or actions. The most commonly portrayed symptom of OCD in the media is that of hand-washing, in which a person obsesses about germs, then compulsively washes their hands. Though the media often portrays OCD in a humorous fashion (think “Knock, knock, knock, Penny…”), OCD is no laughing matter. In upwards of 65 percent of cases, a person experiencing OCD symptoms is left debilitated by the disorder.
Fortunately, OCD rarely (less than 2.5 percent of cases) lasts a lifetime, and in many cases, with treatment, symptoms are alleviated. Obsessive compulsive disorder and substance use disorder share common risk factors, whether genetic, biochemical, or environmental, that leave an individual more vulnerable to the onset and severity of both disorders.
Drug addiction and OCD can both be debilitating (often taking the place of hobbies, or getting in the way of relationships or careers), they both share a higher prevalence of suicide, and a compulsory element.
Treatment of OCD along with the co-occurring drug addiction is essential for improved recovery outcomes. Obsessive compulsive disorder and drug addiction may be managed through cognitive behavioral therapy, long-term support, and/or pharmacological support.
Common Risk Factors in OCD and Drug Addiction
- Genetic predisposition – Genes play a key role in both vulnerability to addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder and both conditions run in families.
- Biochemical dysfunction – In addiction and with OCD, some level of dopamine, serotonin, or GABA/glutamate neurotransmission dysfunction typically exists leading to a biochemical imbalance in the brain that can fuel impulsivity, anxiety, and compulsive behaviors.
- Environmental factors – The experience of a traumatic event can trigger the onset of both addictive and OCD behaviors.
Compulsion And Addiction
Though the exact underlying cause of OCD is not known, there are several pervading theories. What we do know, is that when someone encounters an experience, object, or thought that ignites fear or anxiety, they respond with a ritualistic or repetitive behavior. In the case of someone obsessively worried about falling ill, hand-washing makes sense, but the compulsive behavior does not always logically follow. Someone who is faced with repetitive unwanted imagery or thoughts may compulsively touch an object, run up and down the stairs a set number of times, or switch a light on and off repetitively until they feel some relief from these intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cognitive theory suggests that an individual feels responsible for bad things happening in their lives and uses the compulsory ritual to ward off these negative occurrences.
OCD And The Addicted Brain
Our brains are hardwired with a neural network that controls our responses to external stimuli, our moods, behaviors, sleep cycles, appetite, sex drive, and more. A combination of neurotransmitters (brain messengers) and hormones make up our reactive behaviors. Someone who is addicted to drugs, seeks out the euphoria associated with the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine from the nucleus accumbens, or “pleasure center” of the brain. Similarly, someone with OCD seeks that feeling of relief typically through a ritualistic or repetitive behavior.
High levels of anxiety relating to these feelings or thoughts leaves an individual with OCD vulnerable to choosing drugs or alcohol to self medicate. Nearly all addictive substances generate a release of dopamine. And researchers are starting examine pharmacological treatments for OCD symptoms that center on this dopamine response.
It’s easy to see how someone who self-medicates with (non-prescribed) drugs that stimulate a similar dopamine response can quickly fall into a pattern of addiction. And as they associate that form of relief from OCD symptoms, the addiction emerges as another ritualistic behavior with potentially devastating consequences.
Signs Of OCD And Drug Addiction
In many cases someone suffering with OCD is aware of the strange pattern of behaviors they feel compelled to engage in, and they hide it. This is very similar to the progression of addiction, in which a person increasingly becomes aware of the problem, but hides the use of drugs or alcohol from friends and family. Some OCD rituals become so tedious and complex, they make up the majority of a person’s activities, leaving little time or energy for anything outside of these activities. Drug addiction shares this preoccupation status. If you have a loved one who is growing increasingly despondent or withdrawn from activities, this is one warning sign of both disorders.
People suffering with OCD and drug addiction are likely to experience extreme mood changes, severe withdrawal symptoms or the exacerbation of OCD symptoms if the abused substance is not available. As the severity of the addiction increases, they may show increasingly heightened levels of paranoia or anxiety with a resulting and profound increase in behaviors associated with OCD, depending on the abused substance.
Anyone can be affected by OCD and drug addiction, from the mother of three to the executive in the leadership role of a company. If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, treatment is available.
Treatment Of Co-occurring OCD And Drug Addiction
The most common course of treatment for co-occurring OCD and drug addiction involves cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and, in some cases, pharmacological management of one or both disorders. These integrative methods of treatment show greatly improved recovery outcomes over treatment for the addiction alone.
Help For Co-occurring OCD And Drug Addiction
DrugRehab.org is your online resource connecting you with the professional support and evidence-based treatment options to meet your individual needs. A comprehensive treatment program that assesses the severity of and addresses the complexity of both disorders is an essential step forward toward your long-term recovery. Contact us today and find out about the programs and support will work for you and discover a new and rewarding life free from both the OCD and the addiction.