Nearly 50 percent of people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have extreme fears about touching something they see as “contaminated.” Touching a doorknob can make them feel the need to scrub their hands, for some until they bleed. Treatment usually involves a combination of drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy, often falling short of helping many with OCD.
In a new paper, researchers present data suggesting a simple video intervention can help. Researchers recruited 93 people with higher than average fears about contamination, but without a diagnosis of OCD. The researchers used this recruitment method in case the treatment made the participants’ symptoms worse. After just a week, the intervention was helpful for the two groups that used the intervention.
Participants in the intervention groups were videoed either touching toilet paper inside a bedpan setup up to look and smell as if it contained feces, or videoed washing their hands for 30 seconds. The control group was videoed making arbitrary hand gestures.
The videos were loaded into a smartphone app. Four times a day, everyday for a week, the participants were prompted to watch their personalized videos.
The bedpan video was designed to be a less expensive and less time-consuming version of standard exposure therapy. The hand-washing video was designed hoping it would allow people to feel clean vicariously, satisfying their concerns about contamination without having to actually go wash their hands.
Participants came back after the week was over. Both intervention groups showed a significant reduction in OCD symptoms. Even improving on a test of cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift attention as situations change. Contamination fears didn’t decrease, but researchers think it might be because a week isn’t long enough to recognize these kinds of internal changes. Members of the control group showed no changes on any of the measures.