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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Addiction

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, also known as OCD, is one of the most common mental health conditions affecting Americans today. This disorder is characterized by repetitive, uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions), which take up both time and energy.

While everyone has obsessive thoughts or worries on occasion, those struggling with OCD experience these in excess – their obsessions, fears, and anxieties become all-consuming. As a result, those suffering from OCD are not always able to maintain a healthy routine, as they are constantly distracted and compelled by other, troublesome thoughts. For example, a person with OCD may:

  • Count the number of steps it takes to get to the mailbox
  • Return home multiple times to ensure the door is locked, before going to work
  • Wash hands repeatedly to get rid of germs
  • Organize or clean the home excessively
  • Place things or line items up in a set order
  • Be in constant fear that something bad is going to happen

The International OCD Foundation estimates that there are approximately 2-3 million adults in the United States are living with OCD. That is one in every 100 adults. In addition, the Foundation approximates there are 500,000 children and teens living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder today. This is around the same number of kids who have diabetes.

When left untreated, OCD can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. It can also lead to substance addiction. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Substance use disorders affect more than one-quarter of those who seek treatment for OCD.”

Understanding OCD and Addiction

When a person is struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, they will experience symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both. The obsessions and compulsions interfere with all aspects of their life, including their ability to maintain healthy relationships and go to work or school each day. These behaviors and thoughts are time-consuming, energy-depleting, and over time, can take a toll on an individual. For this reason, OCD will drive some individuals to use substances to cope. When a person uses drugs or alcohol to cope with negative feelings or thoughts, it is called self-medication.

Symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Difficult symptoms of OCD, that can lead a person to substance abuse, include excessive fears or doubts that compel them to carry out an action repeatedly. Common actions, or compulsions, include counting, double-checking, cleansing, arranging, and hoarding. A person with OCD will experience:

  • An inability to control thoughts or behaviors, even when they are recognized as excessive
  • A brief, temporary sense of relief when the actions are performed (however, there is still an inability to find pleasure in these actions)
  • Spending at least one hour each day on these thoughts or behaviors, despite the consequences
  • Significant problems in their daily life due to these thoughts or behaviors

Attempting to manage these symptoms with drugs and alcohol is very common. Drugs and alcohol provide temporary relief for those struggling with OCD, or a brief escape from the negative thoughts that come with the disorder. Note: this relief is only temporary. As the drugs and alcohol wear off, the person may experienced worsened obsessions, compulsions, and anxieties. And in turn, they may use drugs or alcohol again, to feel those temporary effects. Over time, this can lead to addiction (also known as a substance use disorder).

The Onset of OCD and Addiction

OCD can start at any time between preschool and adulthood. However, it most frequently emerges in childhood or adolescence. The International OCD Foundation states that a person with OCD will typically start showing symptoms between the ages of 8 and 12, or in the late teen to early adulthood years (i.e. ages 17-25). This is also about the time that adolescents and young adults initiate drugs and alcohol.

According to national sources, those who experience OCD symptoms for the first time in childhood or adolescence are more likely to develop problems with substance abuse. Adolescents and young adults do not always have the tools or maturity to handle overwhelming thoughts and anxieties on their own. As a result, they may try to take measures into their own hands through the use of drugs and alcohol. This can lead to addiction long-term.

During the adolescent and young adult years, the brain is undergoing dynamic changes. It is not yet fully mature. Specifically, the parts dedicated to learning, judgement, and decision-making are not fully developed. This makes adolescents more likely to act on impulse, which often includes trying drugs and alcohol. The problem is, when drugs and alcohol are introduced at a young age, the brain progress is disrupted. The brain learns and remembers the pleasurable effects of drugs and alcohol. The chemicals from the drugs re-wire the parts of the brain dedicated to pleasure and learning, and compel young people to use/drink again and again to feel the same effects. This is when addiction can start to set in.

When a child or teen is struggling with OCD, and then begins to use drugs and alcohol, he or she becomes at high risk for developing a substance use disorder. As a result, it is important to seek professional help for both disorders, if and when they surface.

Substance Addiction and OCD Treatment

Early intervention is highly beneficial for youth struggling with OCD and/or substance abuse. By catching these issues at a young age, you can help your child better manage symptoms, develop healthy habits, and find success down the road.

When OCD and addiction occur in the same individual, they are called co-occurring disorders or (more formally) a dual diagnosis. Although there is no cure for either disorder, both OCD and addiction are very treatable and can be managed with ongoing and active care.

Treating OCD and addiction together requires an integrated approach. This means that treatment for both disorders is provided at the same time, by the same team, in the same setting. This ensures that professionals fully understand the effects of each disorder, how they are contributing to one another in the individual, and how to treat them effectively. In an integrated dual diagnosis setting, teens and young adults will receive a multi-dimensional treatment plan that helps them:

  • Identify negative thought patterns and subsequent behaviors
  • Understand how to cope with, and manage, the symptoms of OCD
  • Get to the root of their substance abuse problems
  • Develop strategies to manage anxieties, and slow-down drug cravings
  • Understand that full recovery is possible
  • Make positive and healthy changes in his or her life

For those struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and addiction, medication and behavioral therapies are typically recommended for treatment. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is one of the more common therapeutic modalities for treating co-occurring OCD and addiction. CBT helps individuals identify and change their negative thought patterns and behaviors – such as recognizing anxious thoughts when they occur, and stopping the rituals that follow. At Turnbridge, counseling, support groups, family therapy, and holistic therapy methods are also utilized for teens and young adults.

If your child is suffering from OCD and substance use or addiction, it is important to seek help now. Adolescents and young adults who use substances to cope with OCD have a high risk of addiction later in life. Early dual diagnosis treatment is key to keeping your loved one on the most healthy, successful path. If you would like to speak with a professional at Turnbridge about OCD and addiction treatment, please do not hesitate to call 877-581-1793, or explore our treatment programs online.