OCD and Bad Habits

OCDTwo new studies have been published that have shed light on the inclination for habit formation in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).[1] A tendency to develop habits—the compulsive component of the disorder—is a key feature of the disorder rather than a consequence of irrational beliefs.1 For example, instead of washing hands due to the belief that they are contaminated, some people develop concerns about hand contamination as an effect of the recurrent urge to wash their hands.1

Habits are engrained by practice, an enables us to perform complex behaviors in an automatic way.1 They are not fully-conscious, goal-directed behaviors, as people do not consciously think about the details of the behavior.1

Habits are also defining characteristics of psychiatric disorders that have prominent behavioral components, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, and eating disorders.1 Therefore, the new studies support the view that habit formation is also an important component of OCD.1

Both studies were conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge, who compared the habits and goal-directed behaviors of a group of individuals who were diagnosed with OCD, as well as a comparison group of mentally healthy people.1 They found that the group with OCD had a greater tendency to develop avoidance habits, as well as to display impairments of their goal-directed decision making.1

“Habit formation is appearing to be a critical component of an increasing number of illnesses, including eating disorders, addictions, and now OCD,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “For all of these conditions, we need to better understand the biology of habit formation to rationally develop new and more effective treatments.”1

“The bigger picture from these studies is that we have identified a model of compulsivity, which may extend beyond OCD and prove to be a good model of how people lose control over their own behavior more generally, and in other disorders of compulsivity, like addition and some eating disorders,” said Dr. Claire Gillan, corresponding author on both projects. “Importantly, this model was derived from earlier work in both animals and humans which characterized dissociable neural systems, supporting the balance between purposeful action and more automatic habits. The time is right for psychiatry to start moving away from diagnostic labels and instead focus of biological traits that transcend the current definitions of discrete disorders.”1

Hopefully, this will lead to the development of targeted treatments for many individuals, moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach.1

[1] Elsevier. (2014, April 10). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder May Reflect a Propensity for Bad Habits. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 16, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140410083349.htm

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