Dynamic conceptualizations of threat in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

LCO 2015 coverBlog post written by Olivia Knapton based on an article in the journal Language and Cognition

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a severe mental health problem of a heterogeneous nature.  While OCD is characterised by distressing obsessions and repetitive compulsions, the nature of the obsessions and compulsions can vary greatly between individuals.  Recent clinical work has thus sought to define coherent subtypes of OCD in order to improve diagnosis, treatment and hopefully recovery rates. The overwhelming majority of this clinical work adopts quantitative approaches that ask participants to respond to questionnaires and inventories.  In contrast, this research article published in Language and Cognition adds to discussions on OCD subtypes through a qualitative, cognitive linguistic analysis.

In cognitive linguistics, it is argued that linguistic patterns can provide evidence for stable conceptualisations in the mind that structure our experiences and information.  The aims of this study were to provide linguistic evidence for underlying conceptualisations of threat within OCD and to show how subtypes of OCD can be differentiated based on threat conceptualisation.

Data were collected from participants with OCD, who were interviewed about their experiences of the disorder.  Narratives of OCD episodes were then identified in the transcripts and were analysed using image schema theory (Johnson, 1987) and cognitive approaches to deixis in discourse (Chilton, 2004).

Through an exploration of the participants’ subjective experiences of time, space and uncertainty in the recounted OCD episodes, the findings demonstrate that perceptions of threats fluctuate as OCD episodes unfold, and that it is the perceived movement (or not) of the threat that induces distress. The paper thus argues that the blanket notion of threat as often investigated in clinical models of OCD is not sensitive enough to capture these shifting perspectives.

Moreover, the dynamism of the threat was also found to be conceptualised differently for different subtypes of OCD.  For example, in some subtypes of OCD, the threat is conceptualised as moving rapidly away from the self, whereas in other subtypes, the threat is conceptualised largely as close to the self and as highly static.  This variation is in part attributed to the role of two image schemas in structuring OCD episodes: the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL image schema and the CONTAINER image schema. The paper recommends that threat perception in OCD is therefore researched as a highly subjective experience that shows distinct variation between subtypes.

Read the full article ‘Dynamic conceptualizations of threat in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)’



Chilton, P. (2004). Analysing Political Discourse. London: Routledge.

Johnson, M. (1987). The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. Chicago: Chicago University Press.


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