There’s no question that untreated OCD can have a profound impact on a person’s life. Symptoms of the condition can be exhausting to manage. The distress caused by intrusive thoughts and obsessions can take a toll on a person, and the compulsions OCD drives them to engage in can become incredibly time-consuming. OCD’s impact can also reach beyond the person suffering to affect family members, friends, and other loved ones.
Experiences with OCD are as diverse as the people living with the condition, and it would be nearly impossible to list all of the ways in which an individual’s life can be affected. However, there are some commonalities among sufferers, and I’ve seen several of them in my own life. By highlighting these ways in which untreated OCD can, and frequently does, impact a person’s day-to-day life, we can foster a better understanding of the condition and help people recognize when it may be impacting their own life, or the life of someone they care about.
1. Emotional distress
One of the most significant ways in which OCD can cause impairment results from emotional distress. It goes without saying that OCD can cause intense feelings of anxiety. Individuals are often tormented by the nature of the unwanted thoughts they experience and can spend countless hours wondering why the thoughts are there in the first place. This distress can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and extreme sadness taking hold.
This constant, seemingly endless war inside one’s mind against the intrusive thoughts, images, or urges can be mentally taxing. There can seem to be no amount of rest that could counteract the mental exhaustion that is experienced.
In my late teens and throughout my early adulthood, I experienced some of the worst OCD symptoms of my life. During this timeframe, I knew what I was up against. I knew I had OCD but unfortunately, it hadn’t been properly treated. I had tried, of course. I’d gone to many professionals who had attempted to treat me, but who had lacked the understanding and expertise to effectively treat OCD. These failed attempts and harmful treatments led me farther and farther away from the mental wellness that I desperately sought. I became increasingly afraid of both receiving treatment and staying in my current state of mind.
To say that I was constantly exhausted wouldn’t do this experience justice. There are no words to describe the depth of the fatigue that I felt during that time in my life. It took every bit of my energy to put one foot in front of another. I was existing, sure, but I was far from living. Life became a series of tasks to survive. Sleep became my refuge, allowing me to escape my reality and giving me the sense of peace that I longed for but couldn’t find when I was awake.
My mind was in constant disarray, being pummeled with intrusive thought after intrusive thought. In response to these thoughts, I would engage in intricate compulsions, sometimes lasting hours and hours. Loved ones would comment that I looked tired. I knew I did, but I didn’t care. That was the least of my concerns. I remember thinking, “If only they knew. If only they could understand that it’s taking everything in me to even function.” But how could they? I kept so much to myself. My experiences with OCD felt too shameful to speak about.
I felt “crazy.” I hate that word now, but at that time, it was how I saw myself. I internalized every bad thought, taking it to mean something about who I was as a person. I wish I had known what I know now. I wish I could have understood that the thoughts I was experiencing didn’t define me—in fact, the reason they bothered me so much was because they went against everything that I was. This distress is, unfortunately, an experience that many people with OCD relate to. That’s why managing OCD includes learning to manage your emotions.
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2. Physical health problems
Faced with an onslaught of intrusive thoughts, individuals suffering from OCD will often turn to compulsions in an attempt to alleviate the distress they’re feeling. These compulsions may not be visible in all cases, as they can be both mental and physical actions. However they’re carried out, compulsions provide a false promise of relief. While people with OCD may feel better, briefly, after engaging in a compulsion, the behavior only serves to enforce the distress they’re feeling over time, creating what we call the OCD cycle. Regardless of how they’re carried out, compulsions often become time-consuming and exhausting, and can take a physical toll on those who engage in them. In this way, OCD can exacerbate or even cause physical health problems.
This consequence of OCD is one I’m all too familiar with. When I wasn’t preoccupied with all of the intrusive thoughts rattling around my brain, I would be engaged in compulsions. These seemingly endless, illogical compulsions felt relentless. At the time, I was so focused on carrying out the behaviors that I didn’t even realize the toll they were taking on my health. OCD was controlling most of my existence during this period of my life.
My primary compulsions revolved around contamination and cleaning rituals, but I also struggled with emotional contamination. I would have a thought that I considered to be “bad” and then feel I needed to avoid whatever I was touching or eating when that thought occurred, or excessively wash areas of my body. I used bleach like hand soap. I washed my hands so much that they bled. They hurt, but I ignored the pain. I couldn’t even use lotion because, by this time, everything was “dirty” to me. I even had soaps that I considered “dirty.”
I began to constantly wash my mouth, inside and out, and would use various cleaning products in this behavior. No matter what I did, it never felt clean enough. I always doubted if I had washed it correctly, or feared I had missed a spot, and the cycle would continue. Every once in a while, someone would catch me and I would try to explain what I was doing. But there was no explaining, at least not to anyone who didn’t understand OCD—which, at that time in my life, was everyone. My face became chronically burnt around my mouth, but I didn’t care how it looked or consider the long-term impacts. I just did what OCD told me to do: wash, wash, wash.
My emotional contamination fears harmed me in other ways, eventually stealing something that sustains life: eating. I can’t even recall how many times I started to eat a portion of food and had a scary thought that left me unable to finish it. That food would then become off-limits in the future. This happened again and again, and before long, nothing was safe to eat. Just as my world was getting smaller, so was I, physically. I began to lose weight rapidly, but I didn’t notice or care. I was focused on following rules, on keeping all of the awful things in my mind from becoming true.
Loved ones, who meant well and had no idea what I was dealing with, praised me initially. Ironically, they thought I was taking better care of myself, despite the burns on my face. This praise didn’t last forever. As the weight loss continued, they eventually became concerned. There were whispers that I had an eating disorder. I knew what was happening, but I felt powerless to change it. That’s how much power that OCD had over my life at that time.
As I began to have dizzy spells and trouble walking for even short periods, I knew that I needed help. This was not sustainable. I needed to eat and I knew it. Thankfully, I finally found help and began treatment in my early 20’s.
3. Financial and occupational burdens
When someone doesn’t get treatment for OCD, it can also have a financial impact on their life. Those debating whether or not to seek treatment often express concerns over cost. Affordable OCD treatment has historically been difficult to find, and there is no question that mental health services need to be made more affordable for more people. That being said, there is also a price of untreated OCD and it is high.
I would be remiss to not mention the financial impact that OCD has had on my own life. How much money have I spent on cleaning products, throwing away items due to perceived “dirtiness,” and having to replace those items? The cost is immeasurable. Brand-new clothing, school supplies, and treasured childhood items were all tossed in trash bags and thrown away due to the thoughts I was having.
There was also the cost of food being replaced, only for it to become dirty again. At one time, I was only able to bring myself to eat pre-packaged and prepared food from the drive-thru. Of course, this quickly became costly. For a while, my husband and I only had one vehicle, so I would get up very early and drive him to work a distance away. This was mostly due to OCD. I believed that if I didn’t do this, I would likely be unable to eat, as I would need to go through a drive-thru. The cost of gas alone at that time was a financial burden on us as newly married, young adults with a child.
But the costs of OCD aren’t only financial. The condition can also have occupational costs. During this period, my struggles with OCD and other life events left me unable to work. Honestly, how could I have held a job at this point? I was barely eating, not taking care of myself, feeling exhausted all the time, and spending hours upon hours in feeble attempts to clean myself and everything around me. I was hanging on by a thread.
Taking the power back from OCD
These are just a few examples of what OCD costs people and the impact it can have when left untreated. OCD demands that you listen to its rules and rigid guidelines, no matter how it hurts your health and quality of life. Whether you relate to any of these experiences or you’ve noticed OCD impacting your life in other ways, I sincerely hope you’ll seek help with what you’re going through.
With support and treatment, you can take the power back from OCD. You can learn to live a fulfilling and meaningful life driven by your goals and values, not what OCD wants for you. I can say with confidence that this is possible because I’ve experienced it myself. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy helped me learn the tools I needed to fight back against OCD. It can teach you how to limit the impact that OCD has on your life, too.
During ERP, you’ll gradually confront situations and triggers that cause you anxiety and discomfort, but instead of doing the actions that make your thoughts stop, you’ll learn to sit with the anxiety and accept the uncertainty behind the thought. This entire process is supervised by a therapist, who strategically plans it in a way that’s most effective for your specific symptoms and needs. With effort, patience, and consistency, you’ll find that the anxiety is significantly minimized over time.
ERP is most effective with the guidance of a licensed, ERP-trained therapist who specializes in OCD. At NOCD, our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating it with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs—and that means the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.
As costly as untreated OCD can be, we know that the cost of ERP therapy is often the biggest barrier to accessing treatment. To help make treatment more accessible, NOCD provides affordable options and accepts many insurance plans, including United Healthcare, Aetna, Cigna, Humana, many Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, and more. When you schedule a free call with our team, they’ll learn more about your needs and help find the right therapist for you.