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Diagnosis: Do the Rightest Thing

The burden of being an angel. What happens when social mores are enforced too strictly.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder may be a form of hypermoralism, according to a report. And antisocial personality disorder may be its moral opposite.

Claude Braun and other researchers at the University of Quebec at Montreal analyzed dozens of case studies of OCD and APD and determined that the two afflictions exist on opposite ends of a continuum, with OCD sufferers enforcing social mores too strictly. The scientists also found that both disorders can result from injury to different parts of the same brain pathway, one excitatory and the other inhibitory.

But OCD is not a godsend—obviously. "Too much of any good thing can be bad—including morality," Braun says. "If you idealize a lot, if you're a perfectionist, at some point you may go too far and cause harm." A healthy individual is able to "have fun without it being spoiled by obsessing about whether this is the best thing you can do for the most people."

Break the Cycle

There are many ways to manage obsessive-compulsive disorder, but using a combination of medication—typically an SSRI—and therapy is the most common. One technique used in both behavioral and cognitive therapies is called exposure and ritual prevention, or ERP. The client learns skills to tolerate the anxiety that comes with not performing certain ritual behaviors. For example, exposure may mean the patient will touch something he feels is contaminated. Then he resists washing his hands and sees that nothing bad happens. Eventually, the anxiety subsides and new habits can be formed.