Steve Jobs was probably not thinking about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) patients when he designed his trademark Apple iPhone. But for some individuals debilitated by the psychiatric condition, his phone is more than smart; it's a lifesaver.

Plagued by a severe type of anxiety disorder, patients with OCD suffer from obsessions, which are persistent and unwarranted fears of a particular idea, thought, or event. Common obsessions include fear of germs, of forgetting to do something such as to lock the door or turn off the stove, or of needing to have items in a specific order or pattern.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 1% of the U.S. population is affected, with over 30% of those sufferers experiencing their initial symptoms during childhood.

While recognizing that their obsessions are irrational, those with OCD feel powerless to stop the nagging thoughts; as a consequence, they frequently engage in repetitive behaviors or actions, known as compulsions, to try to mitigate their underlying fears. Hence, one who is afraid of germs will wash his hands repeatedly and excessively. A woman afraid she has forgotten to lock her front door, unplug her appliances and turn off the oven will check those items over and over again. An individual who needs things in a particular order, will count and recount items to make sure they are perfectly in place. These rituals can fill up several hours a day.

Hoarding, the ceaseless buying, acquiring and collecting of worthless items, is also associated with OCD. Unlike collectors, hoarders do not proudly display their items; they often feel discomfort and shame about the accompanying clutter and excess.

Whatever the obsession and related compulsion may be, they frequently become so time-consuming that many sufferers eventually find themselves unable to leave home. Ultimately, the condition profoundly impacts relationships and overall quality of life.

Enter the iPhone

While not created as a tool for OCD treatment, the iPhone may nonetheless prove itself worthy as a treatment for the disorder. For the woman afraid she has forgotten to unplug her toaster and her blow-dryer, a few simple photos of those items unplugged can liberate her from the confines of her home, with the portable device enabling her to check those snapshots whenever and wherever.

As a mother of a sufferer reported, simply knowing the pictures were on her phone gave her daughter such tremendous relief that she was able to go out for several consecutive hours, without ever even looking at the pictures.

While such use of smartphones is still rather novel, and scientific studies documenting their effectiveness for OCD sufferers have yet to be published and evaluated via peer-reviewed research, it nevertheless offers a unique and unexpected application.

Traditional treatments for OCD include therapy and medication, with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to direct patients to make associations between thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to their OCD, found to be most effective. Drugs targeting serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood and behavior, are also often prescribed.

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Jon Hershfield, MFT
Sigal Sharf
Elspeth Bell, Ph.D.
Jill M. Hooley, D.Phil.
Jon Hershfield, MFT


Date of original publication:

Updated: October 29, 2016