How does Climate Change affect Obsessive Complusions?

Published on April 23, 2013

This new century has brought with it the topic of climate change as a constant in the news media. A controversial and complex topic, it involves discerning the potential contributions of solar radiation, continental drift, and greenhouse gas concentrations to the changing levels of vegetation, precipitation and sea ice.

In this article we will discuss a group of volunteers who agreed to be observed by scientists while going about their daily routine. A significant proportion of the group, greatly concerned about climate change was observed with a specific focus on their daily efforts to reduce the size of their global footprints.

The study1, reported by M.K. Jones et al. found that some of the subjects were concerned with the immediate consequences of their actions, while others paid more attention to the long term. As an example of immediate concerns, subjects afraid that their pets might die of thirst, checked water bowls repeatedly. Those subjects concerned more with long-term events such as carbon dioxide emissions, checked and rechecked their light switches to ensure that unnecessary electricity usage did not contribute to CO2 levels.

In case your are thinking “so what?", I should Grunge globelet you know before we go farther that the objective of the authors was “to investigate whether climate change has impacted on the nature of the obsessions or compulsions experienced by patients with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).” The only subjects recruited for the study were those diagnosed with OCD, and presented with the additional checking compulsion, which are actions performed to prevent an undesirable event from occurring. The “method” section states that “the sample comprised 50 patients with OCD checking subtype who had presented at the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at The University of Sydney seeking treatment during the period March 2008 to November 2009.”

Vlasioas Brakoulias a researcher unrelated to the Jones study, says that the study is important in mental health circles because “climate change represents a global environmental threat that has the potential to create emotional distress and anxiety about the future in vulnerable individuals. Hence, climate change is relevant to psychiatrists.2

The converse - OCD in the context of global warming is important because as Brakoulious maintains, “checking compulsions have been associated with beliefs involving themes of increased responsibility and threat estimation, prevention of negative consequences and reduced memory confidence.”

When we say that a person suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are at least two considerations - obsessions and compulsions. The proposed changes for diagnosing OCD have been submitted by American Psychiatric Association3 and will presumably be released in March of 2013.

Specifically, the DSM-5 is expected to describe the symptomatology of obsession as:

“Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress”.


“The individual attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action (i.e., by performing a compulsion).”

Compulsions will be said to be recognized by:

“Repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.”


“The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or distress, or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent or are clearly excessive.”

Since one claim of the APA is that the new DSM-5 will be more evidence-based, it is worth exploring a few of the neuroanatomical correlates to OCD.

Particularly interesting are the leading theories for isolating the neurophysiology related to OCD, that is to say, finding exactly where in the brain the dysfunction occurs. The basal ganglia, implicated in many neurological theories of OCD is fed by two major connections - direct and indirect. The net effect of the direct pathway is excitatory, while that of the indirect is inhibitory. Theories are converging around the hypothesis that OCD results from an imbalance in these two pathways that favors the excitatory state.

The Jones paper, claiming to publish the first research on OCD patients with checking subtype while highlighting their concerns about climate change, reported that “fourteen of the 50 participants (28%) were identified as having OCD concerns directly related to climate change. The most frequent concerns involved electricity, water and gas wastage.”

Equally important, Brakoulias makes the salient point that “the prominence of climate change concerns in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) highlights the way that sociocultural contexts can influence the expression of psychiatric disorders and calls for consideration of the potential underlying mechanisms.”

If you are connected to this story in any way, please tell us about your experiences. Until next time…KEEP THINKING!



1 Jones, Mairwen K.; Wootton, Bethany M.; Vaccaro, Lisa D.; Menzies, Ross G. The impact of climate change on obsessive compulsive checking concerns.  Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 46(3), Mar 2012, 265-270. doi: 10.1177/0004867411433951

2 Brakoulias, Vlasios. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 46(3), Mar 2012, 275-276. doi: 10.1177/0004867412437176

3   accessed August 7, 2012.

Category(s):Obsessions & Compulsions (OCD)

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”