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What OCD Is Not: Myths of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

What OCD Is Not: Myths of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

You likely have previously heard about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, in some context. With roughly a 2% prevalence rate in the general population, millions of people experience clinical-level symptoms of OCD each day. Despite this wide prevalence, the true characteristics of OCD are not as widely understood amongst the general population as other mental health disorders, such as depression or generalized anxiety. Oftentimes, when “OCD” is used in popular culture or everyday conversation, it is done so in a manner that conveys misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or a stigma towards those with the disorder. Whereas any number of blogs on our website explain what OCD and it subtypes are, the following aims to debunk misconceptions about the disorder and explain what OCD is not.

OCD Is Not An Adjective

A common phrase you may have heard someone say goes something like, “I’m so ‘OCD’ about ___.” In this instance, OCD is being used as an adjective which, broadly stated, is a word that describes a noun. Adjectives are words like “pretty,” “funny,” “annoying,” or “terrible,” and are often used to emphasize or describe a certain subjective characteristic. Most likely, if you have heard this phrase before, the person uttering these words are describing something that would be better described “quirky.” For example, perhaps they have a certain way they like to organize their books on the bookshelf, or they tend to organize a closet in a particular manner.

It is crucial to recognize that OCD is not quirky and “OCD” is not an adjective. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a diagnosable mental health disorder that requires specific symptoms in order to meet criteria, specifically obsessions, compulsions, or both. Obsessions are categorized as intrusive, unwanted, and distressing thoughts, and compulsions are behaviors that are completed either to reduce distress from an obsession or to comply with rigid rules. Importantly, OCD symptoms are excessive and unreasonable given the context, and they cause a great deal of distress for the individual experiencing them. In the absence of such symptoms and accompanying distress, it is likely an individual is describing a quirk rather than a mental health diagnosis.

To use “OCD” in the form of an adjective can cause a great deal of frustration and invalidation for those experiencing true symptoms of OCD on a daily basis. If symptoms of OCD were quirky or funny, it would not cause significant distress or disruption of daily activities, and it would not take treatment by trained professionals to work through. If you hear someone using this phrase, remind yourself that this is an inaccurate use of the term and, if you feel comfortable doing so, speak up. No one would use a medical diagnosis like cancer as an adjective (e.g., “I’m so cancer about ___”), so why is a mental health diagnosis such as OCD used as one?

OCD Is Not A Choice

I have many times heard people compare OCD symptoms to a bad habit or a choice. It seems a fan-favorite suggestion from parents or partners of individuals with OCD is to just “stop it!” This is a problematic statement as it severely downplays the power of OCD, and such a suggestion can lead to frustration, anger, and interpersonal conflict. First, for many individuals with OCD, their symptoms have become second-nature and may be initially indistinguishable from other behaviors. When an individual first begins treatment for OCD, it is very common for that individual to begin noticing other thoughts and behaviors that are part of their OCD presentation which they previously perceived as “normal.” Oftentimes, what may initially present as a straightforward OCD ritual soon reveals itself to be part of a complicated web of interconnected OCD symptoms that occur on a daily basis without an individual even realizing it.

Second, imagine that a person approaches and warns that a horrible thing is about to befall your loved one, but you can prevent this from happening by completing a simple behavior. In such an instance, you have a choice only in the most technical sense. In reality, the choice is relatively clear: most people would likely choose to engage in the “simple” behavior in such a circumstance. This is similar to what individuals with OCD experience anywhere from a handful of times to hundreds of times per day. However illogical it may seem, an individual suffering from OCD often truly believes that something horrible might happen if they do not engage in a specific behavior. In the same way that the example is only a choice in the most technical sense, so too does there often seem to be just one real option from the perspective of an individual with OCD.

OCD Is Not Just About Cleanliness

When you think of examples of OCD, there are likely a number of stereotypical ideas that immediately come to mind: a preference for cleanliness, flipping light switches, or needing things to be perfect. It is important to realize, however, that not all OCD is about germs and cleanliness. Although Contamination OCD is one of the more common OCD presentations, there are a wide variety of OCD symptoms that individuals with the disorder can experience. Consider the following non-exhaustive list of possible themes of obsessions and/or compulsions:

  • Contamination OCD
  • Existential OCD
  • Harm OCD
  • “Just Right” OCD
  • Perfectionism
  • Real Event OCD
  • Relationship OCD
  • Scrupulosity OCD
  • Sexual OCD

The way OCD impacts individuals varies greatly, and no two presentations are exactly the same. It is for this reason that many people who present with symptoms of OCD outside of contamination and germ-based fears often fail to realize that what they are experiencing is in fact OCD. I have often heard individuals or parents say something to the effect of, “I/They cannot possibly have OCD, I/they are so messy all of the time.” Cleanliness is not a qualifier for diagnosis, and OCD symptoms can vary greatly beyond what is stereotypically associated with the disorder.

Need help or support?

If you or a loved one are struggling with OCD or any other mental health concerns, know that you are not alone. If you are a parent or a caregiver and are seeking additional information about these diagnoses and how you can best support your child, our office provides parent training with the SPACE program. Please see our November 2021 Newsletter for more information on SPACE.

For these or any other mental health concerns, please contact The OCD & Anxiety Center at (630) 522-3124 or info@theocdandanxietycenter.com. We have offices in Oak Brook and Orland Park and our clinicians specialize in helping individuals overcome anxiety disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, and other co-occurring mental health issues. We also provide telehealth services that are available in Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, and Iowa.

At The OCD & Anxiety Center, we can provide treatment both in the office and at off-site locations (your home, mall, school, etc.). We will work closely with you to create an individualized treatment plan and discuss the appropriate frequency of visits needed to achieve your treatment goals. We look forward to hearing from you and working with you to conquer your anxiety!

Samuel Cares is a Masters level therapist at The OCD & Anxiety Center in Oak Brook, IL and Orland Park, IL. He is currently working on his PhD at Northern Illinois University.  He specializes in treating all forms of OCD and anxiety in children, teens, and adults. He provides Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy and is comfortable working in and outside the office, wherever anxiety happens.

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