About 2.3 percent of the people in the U.S. have OCD and related disorders like hoarding disorder, body dysmorphic disorder and trichotillomania/dermatillomania.
Add in anxiety disorders, from generalized anxiety and social anxiety to PTSD, and around 18 percent of the U.S. population is dealing with one in any given year. About 28 percent of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point.
These disorders suck, and it can be pretty hard to see beyond that. For us OCDers and our fellow anxiety sufferers, it can be really, really hard to see any benefit in having them. (I have to admit, if I had the choice to magically get rid of my OCD and never have to go through symptoms again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.)
But they’re not all bad.
The Evolution of Anxiety
If you have OCD or anxiety, you’re likely at least a little familiar with why so many of us have one or the other. OCD developed when humans lived in a much more dangerous world. When we were at the mercy of large predators and other dangers, it made sense to be on high alert much of the time. It also paid off to watch out for strange phenomena like smoke on the horizon, and to flee it instead of giving in to curiosity.
When the people with what we would today call OCD and anxiety survived longer, they had more offspring who also survived longer, and the trait was passed down in our genes.
An interesting non-mental health trait that is similar is “super-tasting.” About 15 percent of people are very sensitive to bitter foods, and that heightened sense of taste may have warned people away from dangerous toxic plants back in the days when most of humanity were hunter-gatherers.
Benefits of OCD and Anxiety
Nowadays, anxiety can still be a good thing. For example, if you’re walking alone at night, it’s good to be alert to your surroundings and on guard for potential dangers, so that you can flee before walking into a perilous situation.
The problem with OCD and anxiety disorders is, of course, that your anxiety gets dialed too high and doesn’t shut itself off when the danger has passed. For example, a lot of my intrusive thoughts cycle around illness. I worry about getting sick, or about my family or pets getting sick. This is fine, when I am alert to real symptoms and help to make sure actual illnesses are treated. It was not fine when I was making weekly trips to the vet or emailing my doctor at 3 a.m. because I worried about botulism or rabies with no cause.
The benefits of treatment are that my medication has helped that OCD cycle calm down, but it hasn’t shut down my anxiety entirely. I’ve saved a lot of money on unnecessary vet trips and stopped annoying my doctor with increasingly ridiculous medical scenarios. However, I’ve also gone in for valid reasons, and been grateful that I could recognize those situations. I’ve learned to evaluate anxiety about behaviors or symptoms more rationally, and decide whether action is needed based on logic instead of that gut-punch of fear over nothing.
I don’t see benefits from all of my OCD symptoms. My intrusive thoughts about harming people cause nothing but pain, and I just don’t see a positive from that. But the ones that are really just magnified versions of the normal, everyday worries that people should have about health and safety? As much as I’d love to get rid of this disorder, I can also admit that it comes with a (very) few positives.
Do any of you see benefits from your OCD or anxiety? Are there things you’ve learned or done that you never would have without OCD?
Earliest known human footprints — australopithecus afarensis at Laetoli — at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Photo by Tim Evanson