Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Lee Suckling: The OCD generation

Lena Dunham's character in Girls displays some severe symptoms of OCD.
Lena Dunham's character in Girls displays some severe symptoms of OCD.

When Lena Dunham addressed OCD at the end of Girls' second season, millions of young viewers across the world felt a sigh of relief.

"OCD is normal!" many of us thought watching Dunham's character obsess over counting to eight. We then secretly thought, "Thank God mine isn't as bad as hers."

Our generation has accepted obsessive-compulsive tendencies as part of modern life. Not the turn-the-light-on-and-off-eight-times kind of OCD, but the stress-driven obsessions that we accept as part of being A-type personalities.

A common enabler of anxiety and OCD is modern society's accommodation of it, especially by those closest to us. Dr Jeff Szymanski, Executive Director of the International OCD Foundation, says: "Essentially 'accommodating' behaviours are ways of participating in the compulsive behaviours with your family member in an attempt to try to be of help to them, only to find yourself as intertwined as they are in the OCD symptoms and with no end in sight."

Dunham autobiographically talked to OCD in her HBO show, and several other celebrities have also exposed their compulsive tendencies to the public. Charlize Theron admitted to OCD on Australian radio, clarifying, "I have to be incredibly tidy and organised or it messes with my mind and switches off on me", while Julianne Moore called OCD "an indulgence of my youth".

Megan Fox won't use toilets without covering them, Cameron Diaz used to wash her hands dozens of times a day, and Jessica Alba once had to double-check every door lock and unplug every electrical device before going to sleep.

We belong to the OCD Generation, one that panics without ultimate orderliness in every aspect of our lives. We accept the impossible expectations we put upon ourselves, try to do too much with too little time, and worry about the low probabilities of life.

We strive to achieve, to impress, to be perfect. We obsess over things big and small, but mostly small: often not life-changing decisions but daily administration - such as looking faultless in public, with flawless skin and perfect hair.

Or perhaps our obsessions are unwarranted and unrealistic: fear of infectious diseases, fear of rejection or embarrassment, even fear of stress (which inevitably causes stress).
Such compulsive worries lead to feelings of debilitation, panic attacks, even being unable to leave the house. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour is exhibited - and accepted - by a silent yet sizable proportion of adults today. The Phobic Trust of New Zealand, which helps people with compulsive disorders, estimates 25 per cent of Kiwis suffer from OCD and similar disabilities.

However, in our modern generation we often mistakenly self-diagnose OCD; accepting it as essential in a motivated and driven life. The modern world teaches us to over-personalise, over-generalise, jump to conclusions and catastrophise when we feel anxiety. Much of this is worsened by the internet.

An OCD thought starts as a little niggle, like a spot you want to squeeze. It's present in your mind, but barely noticeable until you give it a little thought. The thought then turns to worry, and the worrying mind wants solution.

You turn to Google, and type in your problem. "How much bacteria is on a toilet seat?", "Fatal rashes", or "Can you die from an insect bite?", and so on.

The Great and Powerful Google then overwhelms you with information and misinformation (particularly on message boards and forums), which opens your worry up to the point of no return.

Once you're confused you can't control your worry. You're in a cycle and you're overwhelmed. So if this kind of OCD happens to you, step back and seek help - or self-help, as it were.

There's a popular psychotherapeutic approach called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that can be provided through workbooks (many are free online) rather than a real life therapist. It enables you to realise it is anxiety that underlines OCD, not the other way around (hence the self-misdiagnosis).

Of course, anxiety can't be cured in a month. Anxiety can't really be cured at all. But it can be managed. CBT, in a nutshell, teaches you to think differently - more objectively, with evidence and alternative viewpoints - about your worries. It's the perfect antidote to our all-consuming modern life that fixates on internalisation and others' perceptions.
Put simply, anxiety, and subsequent OCD, is fuelled by fear. Deal with the fear, and the habit of thinking about the fear, and you deal with the obsessive worries. You'll fuss again and again about new things - the 21st century is full of perplexities to fret about - but as time goes by, you'll learn how to better process them.

Do remember, anxiety has purpose. American psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, known as the father of CBT, explains it best: "Anxiety is not painful to punish you, but rather to wake you up and get your attention.

"[Either] you need to act differently, or you need to think differently".


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Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Writer Lee Suckling pens his opinionated thoughts every Wednesday, covering issues surrounding Generation Y, New Zealand's gay community, and the ethical dilemmas presented every day to those living in a tech-centric modern world. Outside of the New Zealand Herald, Lee writes for a range of magazines and newspapers across New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

Read more by Lee Suckling

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