Avoid the Snake Oil: Pseudoscience and OCD Treatment

Avoid the Snake Oil: Pseudoscience and OCD Treatment

Katie D. Kriegshauser, PhD

Katie D. Kriegshauser, Ph.D.

Katie D. Kriegshauser, PhD is the Director of the Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment, P.A. (KCCAT) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. KCCAT is a specialty treatment center focused on providing evidence-based care for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, and related disorders across the lifespan, as well as conducting clinical research and providing training to professionals. Dr. Kriegshauser treats all ages, with a particular passion for treating OCD, OC-spectrum disorders, and co-occurring conditions. Dr. Kriegshauser is also the Primary Investigator of the Anchors Project, a NIMH-funded clinical trial examining ways to use technology to deliver evidence-based anxiety prevention tools to children and their families. 

Avoid the Snake Oil: Pseudoscience and OCD Treatment

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People with OCD see on average three to four doctors over nine years before receiving a correct diagnosis. Having it finally named may offer some sense of relief— once a condition’s identified, you can get down to properly treating it, right? Well…yes and no. 

The good news: available OCD interventions are highly effective for the majority of people! Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), more specifically, Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP) with or without selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) has reliably been shown to be effective for the treatment of OCD. The bad: many wind up in ineffective treatment, and making decisions about treatment options can seem bewildering.

What IS pseudoscience? Pseudoscience involves ideas and methods that sound plausible and compelling, but which make claims on faulty or non-existent evidence. Pseudoscientific treatments are often touted as “cutting edge” but lack support of (or are even debunked by) the broader scientific community and methods. By definition, evidence-based approaches seek continued inquiry and self-correction; pseudoscience tends to stick to more steadfast ideology and evades outside scrutiny. Other red flags can include:

  • Bold claims (such as overnight success, immediate relief, or a “cure”) relying excessively on testimonials or case examples in lieu of data
  • Untestable theories or circular explanations about how treatment may work
  • Lack of quality scholarly research on its techniques or theory.

Where's it come from? A number of factors contribute to the spread of ineffective health information. Sometimes there are direct financial ties to promoting an “exclusive” product or franchise. More often, pseudoscience may arise from well-meaning but misguided enthusiasm and hope. In fact, initial symptom relief can occur with pseudoscientific treatments, but classified as placebo effects when examined more closely— the mere idea of starting treatment has a powerful (yet temporary!) effect across healthcare. A more common scenario is locating providers whose approach would not be considered pseudoscientific, and in fact clinically sound for many problems, yet is outdated or insufficient for what’s best-practice in treating OCD. For example, relaxation training may provide general stress relief and improve overall well-being, but isn't among those therapeutic strategies known to meaningfully target obsessions or compulsions.

Why does it matter? With the typical OCD sufferer already long overdue for relief by time of diagnosis, outdated or pseudoscientific treatments add further delay, unnecessary extra costs, and risks of worsening symptoms. Besides misdirecting time and resources, there’s also an impact on morale and motivation. After all, when a wonderful-sounding approach you invested in doesn't work, it’s understandable to get discouraged and think maybe nothing else can. But if “treatment failure" is based on an incorrect type, delivery, or level of services, you're held back from seeking care that’s more likely to be effective.

Finding the “good stuff.” It’s important to be an active and informed consumer. Learn whatever you can about OCD and what's considered the most up-to-date, strongly supported, and research-driven treatments. Starting guidance can be found through ADAA and other organizations like the International Obsessive Compulsive Foundation. When seeking care, don't hesitate to ask about approach, training, experience, and success rates. It’s also important to have candid conversations with your clinician about your treatment plan and steps, and how you will measure progress. Ask for something to be explained in a different way if unclear, and know you also have the right to ask for another opinion. Finally, given the vast amount of sometimes confusing information, you can also take a peek at investigative sites like Quackwatch, which tracks health-related frauds, myths, fads, and fallacies in healthcare, or read available books about pseudoscience and mental health. You can also take a hint from academics and use search engines just for peer-reviewed articles (i.e., work vetted by other scientists), such as scholar.google.comBottom line. Be persistent in locating providers that can first discuss what a solid course of the gold-standard approaches to OCD management looks like; then, if needed, what adjunctive or alternative therapies might be tried. Too often we meet people assuming their OCD “is too different” or “non-responsive,” when in fact past treatments have been ineffective, untested, or supported by limited evidence. Arming yourself with the facts about your condition can help you avoid the seductive allure of pseudoscience, and its risk to your time, money, health, hope.

Katie D. Kriegshauser, PhD

Katie D. Kriegshauser, Ph.D.

Katie D. Kriegshauser, PhD is the Director of the Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment, P.A. (KCCAT) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. KCCAT is a specialty treatment center focused on providing evidence-based care for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, and related disorders across the lifespan, as well as conducting clinical research and providing training to professionals. Dr. Kriegshauser treats all ages, with a particular passion for treating OCD, OC-spectrum disorders, and co-occurring conditions. Dr. Kriegshauser is also the Primary Investigator of the Anchors Project, a NIMH-funded clinical trial examining ways to use technology to deliver evidence-based anxiety prevention tools to children and their families. 

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