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Researchers say doubts about past experiences may propel people with OCD to repeat their behaviors. Getty Images
  • New research suggests that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may be fueled in part by people’s distrust of past experiences.
  • Researchers used mathematical equations to dig deep into responses OCD participants gave them from a multiple choice test.
  • More research is needed, but experts say the findings could lead to a better understanding of OCD and perhaps more effective treatments.

Zoe Kasper was only in fifth grade when she began to realize something wasn’t quite right in her brain.

“It started with my hair each day,” said Kasper, now a 12-year-old seventh grader. “It had to be just right. My parents thought I was being stubborn, but that was not it. It started off little and then it just got… so big.”

Diagnosed as having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) soon after, Kasper has spent the past 2 years working with therapists at the Bradley Hospital to manage her condition.

“It was like I was always trying for what I like to call my ‘just right feel,’” she told Healthline. “How I looked had nothing to do with it. It was a feeling deep inside me.”

Holly Vitko, LPC, who works with teens in Connecticut, began noticing her OCD symptoms as a child as well.

“[It was an] overwhelming feeling of anxiety or uneasiness that promotes specific behaviors,” she told Healthline. “For example, I can touch something and it will ‘feel wrong,’ therefore, I am prompted to repeat this behavior over and over until it ‘feels right.'”

Like Kasper, she’s worked with therapists for years. Today, she treats people with the same condition.

Both Kasper and Vitko may benefit from new research published today in PLOS Computational Biology by Isaac Fradkin, PhD, of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, and his colleagues.

Fradkin, who has dedicated his career to studying OCD and treatment outcomes, found via his study that rather than being characterized by inflexible behavior, OCD may manifest in a person as a result of a mistrust of past experiences.

In other words, there could be an underlying reason for the development of OCD.

Fradkin says he was motivated to dive into the study after noticing, time after time, that people with OCD spoke of what he calls the “not just right experience.”

“They can do an action that allegedly reaches a goal, but they just don’t feel quite right about it,” he told Healthline. “The vagueness of this experience and yet the dramatic impact on function made me want to dig deeper.”

His surprise moment?

When the outcome of the study matched his hypothesis exactly.

Fradkin and team used mathematical equations to assess how people with OCD performed on a multiple choice test, and then dug into what made them make the choices they did.

The outcome, he believes, could in time “inform new treatments and therapeutics” for people living with OCD.

As a person who has OCD, Vitko sees this research as fascinating.

“The concept of not trusting the past is very interesting to me,” she said. “It’s not a concept that I had explored either in my own treatment or professional training, but I do think this makes sense, as OCD unquestionably produces doubt.”

For example, she says, an individual who “checks” to ensure the door is locked seemingly doesn’t trust the accuracy of this information. Therefore, they continue “checking” in repetition until satisfied.

“In most circumstances these compulsive acts often feel as if they have stronger merit on the outcome of a situation, even when we have learned through past experiences that the outcome would likely be the same if these acts were not completed. In this sense, we are not trusting the past,” she said.

As a practitioner, Vitko says, she’s seen people whose OCD symptom are so intense, they’re unable to leave their homes.

New tools and ideas on how to help people with OCD means Vitko will be following this research with hope.

“I always believe that further research and treatment options are essential when pertaining to mental health. This specific insight of ‘not trusting the past’ will likely be helpful to better understand and approach OCD in the future.

“OCD in particular is a fairly unrepresented area of specialty within this field, therefore, promoting new knowledge will aid professionals to work more comfortably and effectively with clients in need,” Vitko said.

Next steps are already in the making, Fradkin says.

He hopes to launch a larger, internet-based study to dig deeper and discover more.

In time, he hopes his research will lead to more effective and helpful treatments.

Kasper says that makes her “very excited and hopeful.”

Having been treated with exposure therapy and having experienced relapses, she yearns for a better way.

“Exposure therapy is not easy at all,” she said. “Plus, I’d like to know that there was a reason for this. At first you just think you are weird and you judge yourself. Having a reason that is understood would change that.”

“Plus,” she added, “what if this means it could be preventable? It might be too late for me, but for someone else to get ahead of it? That would just be amazing.”