Obsessive compulsive disorder is a series of obsessions and compulsions caused by anxiety and fear. Typical symptoms of OCD include a fear of germs characterised by endless washing of hands or repeated ritualistic behaviour such as checking to see if doors are locked. OCD is very common and around one in fifty people in the US are diagnosed with the disorder every year, but what is the history of obsessive compulsive disorder?
Obsessive compulsive disorder has been around for centuries, although the disorder was not given a name until more recent times. Unfortunately for early sufferers of OCD, experiencing (and admitting to) obsessive thoughts of a blasphemous or sexual nature was considered to be a sign that you were possessed by the Devil. This was clearly not a good thing and the local priest or shaman would have been called to exorcise the “evil” from you.
During the Renaissance, obsessions and compulsions were referred to as scrupulosity and more enlightened souls began to develop a greater understanding of how fear and anxiety played a crucial role in the development of obsessive compulsive behaviour.
The history of obsessive compulsive disorder
Superstitious beliefs about the origins of obsessive compulsive behaviour slowly began to fade and because the problem was fairly widespread, several members of the clergy wrote self help manuals for their parishioners to help them deal with the symptoms of the disorder. Practical advice included recommendations that sufferers should avoid spending time alone and stay busy. Naturally the Church stressed the importance of obedience to spiritual advisors at all times.
By the 1700s, the clergy’s influence began to wane and physicians were increasingly called upon to treat the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. Common treatments of the time included “bloodletting”, enemas, and institutionalism in mental asylums.
Thankfully, by the end of the 19th century, OCD was less likely to be considered a form of insanity and a person exhibiting the obsessions and compulsions of OCD was far less likely to be locked up in the local lunatic asylum against their will. Around this time, a great deal of research was being carried out on what was now perceived to be a neurosis as opposed to a mental illness. Cures and innovative treatments for OCD around this time included opium and low doses of arsenic.
Freud and the history of obsessive compulsive disorder
One of the best known figures in 20th century psychology is Sigmund Freud and unlike the physicians before him, he interpreted the obsessions and compulsions of OCD symbolically. Through detailed analysis of the neurosis of his patients, Freud decided that the ritualistic behaviour of OCD had a sexual interpretation.
Freud’s theories continued to hold great weight until the 1970s when another paradigm shift in psychological theory occurred. Around this time psychologists began to treat OCD patients using a cognitive behavioural approach and the exposure and response prevention techniques still in use today were developed. It was also around this time that drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft began to be prescribed for OCD patients.