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Cleaning Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - More than just tidy rooms

Medically reviewed by

Written by Parth Sharma

What is OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a mental health disorder categorized by the presence of recurring obsessive thoughts and subsequent compulsive behaviors done to get rid of them. 

Under OCD, there is a cluster of symptoms based on which a group of subtypes has been identified. 

These include:

  1. Contamination and cleaning: Some people fear becoming contaminated by germs or other substances — including abstract contaminants like evil or bad luck. An obsession with contamination can often lead to a cleaning compulsion. 
  2. Symmetry and order: Some people become preoccupied with arranging objects in a particular order, often because of magical thinking.
  3. Harm and checking: An excessive fear of being responsible for the damage can lead to compulsive checking behaviors, such as making sure you've turned off the stove or iron. 
  4. Unacceptable thoughts and mental rituals: These recurring unwanted thoughts involve sex, violence, or religious images. Trying to suppress the ideas can lead to even more anxiety.

These symptom dimensions link directly to cleaning tasks: contamination and cleaning and symmetry and order. 

What is OCD Cleaning?

The cleaning type of OCD ( sometimes misnamed Obsessive Cleaning Disorder) thus borrows from the clusters mentioned above of symptoms; it goes beyond a simple need to maintain a tidy, sterile environment. People who suffer from compulsive cleaning may have a sense of contamination by dirt, germs, environmental contaminants, or chemical toxins. It is often characterized by two significant behaviors, which are

  1. Self Cleaning: Involves a person engaging compulsively in hand washing. The urge typically arises from a fear of germs (the most common obsession seen in OCD). Still, it also can be embedded in fears of making others sick or being polluted or immoral. People with contamination fears will generally engage in extreme washing to remove dirt and germs or feel clean. Handwashing may be done in a ritualized manner. It is not unusual for people with this type of OCD to have red hands that may even bleed. Compulsive hand washers may also engage in excessive hand sanitizers between trips to the sink.
  2. Overt cleaning: People with contamination OCD may spend a lot of time cleaning family items or other lifeless objects. Someone with this type of OCD may wash their shoes, credit cards, phone, or other things that may have come into contact with them. These items may be deemed dirty or infected. As with handwashing, house cleaning is often a way to reduce germaphobia or impurity feelings. Although cleaning can help end these obsessive thoughts, the comfort does not last, and the desire to clean is often even more powerful the next time.

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What are the signs and symptoms of Obsessive cleaning?

The DSM-5(the manual used for diagnosis) highlights that compulsive acts can take time. The need to perform rituals specifically and compulsive actions can cause severe anxiety. OCD is much more than a desire to work or live in a clean environment or a fondness for neatness. Sometimes, it involves a debilitating and painful need to clean and reclean specific areas or items.

Some cleaning OCD symptoms can be enlisted as follows 

  1. Feeling disgusted or scared of particular objects or substances, including dirt, trash, or chemicals.
  2. Having a strong urge to wash the hands or shower frequently
  3. Using a specific process or ritual for cleansing themselves or their surroundings
  4. Changing clothes multiple times a day
  5. Damaging their skin or body through excessive cleaning

How to get rid of OCD Cleaning disorder?

Compulsive cleaning symptoms under OCD can be treated in the following ways:

  1. Cognitive-behavioral therapy CBT is an effective treatment where patients meet with a therapist who can help them decrease their anxiety by recognizing thought practices that misinterpret their view of reality and generate stress. The therapist can help people learn how to restructure these thoughts in productive ways.

  2. Exposure and response prevention The patient is asked to explain their obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. The therapist then helps them slowly rehearse encountering stressful situations both in their imagination and in real life without using the existing compulsions. This form of therapy introduces the trigger to the client and focuses on cognitive restructuring.
  3. Medication: Psychiatric drugs, called SSRIs selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, help many people control their obsessions and compulsions.
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