The four kinds of OCD – Numeracy and Symmetry

From Part 1:

Mental illnesses are complex, and are extremely variable in their presentation. In a woman, depression often comes out as tearfulness. In a man, the same depression might cause uncontrollable anger. To aid in the diagnosis of mental illness, physicians and mental health professionals rely on patterns, or rules-of-thumb, to aid their clinical skills. People tend to fall into patterns, or groups, though this isn’t always the case. The following describes four common subgroups of OCD, but rest assured these descriptions will not perfectly capture everyone suffering from the illness.

Part 2

crown group modern motion
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Numeracy and Symmetry

Have you ever seen a kid walking in the mall (sorry Gen Z), jumping from small blue tile to small blue tile?

“Avoid the lava!”

“Watch out for the monsters!”

This is a completely normal behaviour, and many children, including myself, dabble a little in the lava-tile game.

But imagine if to you, it meant a little more. Imagine that your found yourself unable to walk on white tiles, because of a crippling sense of anxiety that if you did, something bad would happen. You would probably know this doesn’t make much sense, which only adds to the madness.

It wouldn’t be easy going to the mall.

This type of behaviour, in it’s extreme form, falls under the umbrella of a symmetry/numeracy based obsession. In this type of OCD, the obsessional thought is usually something along the lines of, “if this isn’t this way, than something bad will happen.” There may or may not be a specific type of “bad”-consequence perceived. Some examples;

***

An eight year old boy goes through the home and makes sure every single TV and computer has the volume set on an even number. His father has the TV on 15 one day, and the child gets very upset and throws a temper tantrum when his father doesn’t let him change it. The next day, his mother asks him what happened. The boy responds, “if the numbers are odd numbers, I’ll die.”

A twenty four year old woman is late for work every day. She’s eventually fired from her job, and ends up in a doctor’s office while she is off of work. “I think I need help doctor.” “OK. You’re in the right place. What do you think is going on?” “Every time I look in a mirror, I can’t leave until I catch my nose at the perfect angle, perfectly symmetric. I don’t know why, I just can’t. Some days it takes up eight or more hours.”

A fifteen year old is teased at school for his quirky behaviour. He doesn’t tell his parents why, and they only know that he is being bullied. One day, when dad is picking the boy up from school, dad notices the boy jumping from dark tile to dark tile on the sidewalk. “What was that about?” dad asks when the boy gets in the car. The boy blushes and says, “can we just go?”

***

These are real examples of OCD at it’s strongest. Fortunately, most of the people in the above example recovered reasonably well. Why share this? OCD remains one of the most under-recognized mental illnesses, and hopefully this helps dispel some of the myths.

Editor’s note: Read about what OCD isn’t!

Stay tuned for OCD – What to do about it, and the remainder of the, “four kinds,” series.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

What makes something addictive? Are ADHD drugs addictive? What about sugar?

“I’m going to head to Tim Horton’s for a coffee.”

“Sure, no problem.”

You walk to Tim’s and you begin to realize you’re hungry. It’s 11:45 AM and lunch is only fifteen minutes away. You’ve brought your lunch to work today as well so you should be good.

Just a coffee, you say to yourself.

“Hi, welcome to Tim Horton’s! May I take your order?”

“Hi, yes I’ll have a large coffee with milk, a vanilla dip doughnut, and a pack of those doughnut sticks you have.”

pink doughnut with bite
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

What is it that makes fried, sugared dough addictive? Or deep-fried potatoes? Or sour patch kids? Or anything, for that matter?

In our brains, there exists something called the nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain is known as the reward centre. What does this mean? Every time you do something that feels good, this centre “pings,” and makes you feel good. Why does this part of the brain exist? Well, it’s actually essential to our survival! Things like eating, drinking water, and having sex, are vital biological functions for our species. Without them, we would not survive. Very few of us, however, are thinking about, “I need to survive and propagate my genes,” as we eat and have sex. No, most of us do these things because they feel good. That’s where the nucleus accumbens comes in. It pings and rewards us with a shot of dopamine, the brain’s “happiness chemical,” when you do something that’s good, biologically. It’s a built-in incentive system to ensure we are doing, and feel good about doing, those functions essential for species survival.

This system, however, is imperfect, and it is prone to being hijacked. The nucleus accumbens is where many substances of abuse act, including cocaine, crystal meth, and any number of drugs. This is why many people with drug addiction become very skinny, and can waste away. The drugs hijack the system, and reward you more than food. Drugs steadily train the brain that the best rewards come from the drugs, and not food or water or sex. A great example of how strong the craving for drugs can be is a study that examined rats, who had electrodes placed in their brain at the site of the nucleus accumbens. The rats were given the ability to hit a button in their cages, which would activate the electrode, stimulate the nucleus, and cause a reward. The rats eventually choose to die while hitting the button, and totally neglect vital functions such as eating and drinking.

animal cute little mouse
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But what is it that makes a substance addictive? Sugary foods can be addictive and cause cravings, for example, while carrots almost certainly do not. Cocaine and crystal meth are extraordinarily addictive drugs, while ritaline and vyvanse, medications for ADHD which act similarly, are not. What is responsible for this difference?

We think we know!

The nucleus accumbens appears to be sensitive the the size of a potential reward. Finding a penny on the ground, for example, makes us feel a lot less better than finding a one hundred dollar bill. Biologically, this discrimination has allowed the brain to prioritize eating high caloric foods, over low caloric foods, although both may taste good. (This function would have evolved prior to the food-availability we experience today in the Western world – the drive to eat higher calorie foods is a clear disadvantage to many of us nowadays.) The same principle applies today, which is why sugary, fatty foods are so addictive. The sugar and the fat, the nutrients essential to life which are activating the nucleus accumbens in the first place, are higher in doughnuts than they are broccoli, and therefore we crave doughnuts. This is actually a great example of how the advantage of a particular behaviour, and whether it is a mental illness, depends entirely on context. A drive to eat high caloric foods would have previously been evolutionary essential – now it causes heart disease.

So what’s the deal with drugs?

Well, the same principle applies. The strength of a stimulus is directly proportional to how addictive the substance is. So what affects the strength? Food that are higher in sugar and fat cause a higher level of nucleus stimulation, therefore we crave food that are slowly killing us. This is also true for drugs of abuse; crystal meth is several orders of magnitude stronger than cocaine, and meth is a hell of a lot more addictive. But there’s more! The speed of the stimulus also matters!

man standing beside train
Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

When a sugar/fat/drug reward is given to us suddenly, the nucleus reacts more strongly to it, and we get a higher reward. This also reinforces the strength of an addiction. This has implications for food, which is why a banana and a candy with the exact same amount of sugar make us feel differently. The candy which instantly digests and gives us a sudden jolt of sugar, is highly addictive. The banana, which takes time to digest and releases the same amount of sugar, just over time, is not addictive!

This principle also applies for drugs, and gets to the root of why ADHD medications are not addictive – usually. The medications used for ADHD tend to digest very slowly, and although they act on the brain in the exact same way as cocaine and crystal meth, are not addictive. This is because that, relative to drugs of abuse, the medications are released very slowly.

The exception can be if you use ADHD medications in ways they are not meant to be – such as snorting or injecting (neither of these are safe methods to use). By snorting/injecting, instead of digesting you get around the bodies need to digest, and you can get a sudden jolt of dopamine, which would potentially contribute to an addiction.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.