The OCD Spiral

The OCD Spiral


I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and depression at the age of 15, soon after my grandad developed dementia. Over the next 7 years, the severity of my symptoms would oscillate. No treatment had any significant impact, and other people’s experiences of anxiety never really felt familiar. Finally, during my lowest point, when I admitted myself to hospital with suicidal thoughts, I was diagnosed with OCD – and everything began to make sense.

OCD explained

OCD is very poorly understood. Media depiction is partly to blame as OCD is usually shown through people being slightly obsessive about cleanliness or orderliness. Monica out of Friends is a good example of this. Often people refer to themselves as having ‘a little bit of OCD’ which can further trivialise the condition.

In reality, OCD can be a terrifying, paralysing illness. Taking cleanliness as an example, it’s important to understand why that person is obsessed with cleaning. Imagine a parent with OCD cleaning their kitchen. They may clean their kitchen counter 3, 4 times in a row. They may clean it, leave the kitchen, only to hurry back after 5 minutes to clean it again. Why? In that person’s mind, they are terrified about what will happen if they don’t. They may believe that if the counter isn’t 100% clean, their child will touch it, catch a disease, and die. They know deep down that it makes little sense, but the fear induced by the OCD compels them to clean over and over again. Other sufferers may not do physical ‘checks’, but may mentally replay things over and over again to check whether they had/hadn’t done a specific action. Each time they do, their anxiety will temporarily subside, only to come back even more intensely.  

OCD is fed by your worst fears – about your family, your morality, whatever you hold most dear. It can convince you that you are doomed to a fate worse than death. It is a constant, unrelenting stream of ‘what if?’ thoughts, and a tireless devil’s advocate. Almost like an addiction, everything that you think will make you feel better leaves you feeling worse, and the spiral becomes harder to escape. People with OCD struggle to accept thoughts as just being thoughts – they may believe that having a thought about something makes it more likely to happen, something known as ‘thought-action fusion’.

How does being Punjabi affect this?

From my experience, it feels like there are a few things related to being Punjabi, or BME in general, that may affect how your OCD manifests and how you respond. Firstly, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we are probably more likely to believe in ‘black magic’ than non-BME people. This belief can really push the scope of your thoughts and make it more difficult for you to recognise their illogical nature. When I was first admitted to hospital, speaking to a BME psychiatrist who understood the concept was a real blessing.

Secondly, Sikhi discourages running away to the mountains to live as a sadhu, and encourages playing an active, beneficial role in society. My OCD has often rested on this – the belief that if my OCD thoughts came true, my life would become useless. Plus, being a Sikh, being fearful can feel shameful. Our ancestors would enter a battle without fear, and I’m terrified of my own thoughts? It’s a difficult concept to wrestle with.

Additionally, OCD can take the form of ‘religious OCD’ (or ‘scrupulosity’). If you are devout (or even if you’re not) you may find your OCD revolving around this theme. You may become highly anxious if, for example, you get intrusive thoughts whilst doing paath. The problem is, the more you react and try to block an image or thought coming into your head, the more likely it is to return.

Getting better

There are a few different treatments for OCD. Personally, my treatment has focussed on Exposure Response Therapy. It’s essentially the OCD equivalent of having someone with arachnophobia first imagine a spider and graduate to holding one. It’s hard - but with effort and support you begin to see results. Learning to acknowledge and detach from your thoughts is also crucial.

Once I explained my condition to the people around me, starting every sentence with ‘I know this sounds ridiculous, but…’, I realised how understanding they could be. I was fearful of being judged for my OCD thoughts, but I wasn’t. I’ve no doubt that the work on shifting attitudes around mental health is to be thanked for this.

Moving our community forward

The nature of OCD means that recovery is often dependent on the people around the individual who is suffering. It is therefore really important that families - specifically parents – and friends develop a good understanding of the illness – particularly to prevent them from giving the sufferer reassurance. There is a lot of good information online that explains OCD - how it feels to a sufferer, how it manifests, and, importantly, how to support someone who is suffering. However, very little of this is translated, and even less will be written in a way that makes sense to those with a less Western idea of mental illness. By educating our community on how to respond to OCD, translating where necessary and explaining the illness from a more familiar lens, OCD sufferers will feel less isolated.

Additionally, moving forward does not necessarily mean forgetting the past. Many of the answers to help you respond to OCD lie within Sikhi. Learning Gurbani, doing simran and understanding my role in this world have all personally helped me come to terms with the illness and reduce the power it has over my life. But, as mentioned, try to be aware of when you may be veering into the realm of scrupulosity.


With the coronavirus locking us all behind closed doors, leaving us to spend more time with our thoughts, a lot of people are struggling with their mental health. Those suffering from OCD are no exception. If you are struggling with OCD, I hope this post may encourage you to find support, or at least let you know that you are not alone.

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