Many people often complain about how "OCD" they are because they like things clean or how a messy room “triggers their OCD”. Using such phrases is quite common, and that's where the problem lies! In this article, we will explain why that is a problem and address a few other misconceptions about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
What is OCD?
OCD is a common, chronic, and long-lasting mental disorder. A person with OCD has obsessions (uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts) and/or compulsions (behaviours that they feel the urge to repeat over and over).
Both of these are patterns of unwanted thoughts, causing people to engage in repetitive behaviours that interfere with their day-to-day functioning.
Let's look at obsessions and compulsions more closely.
Obsessions are repeated, persistent, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts, urges, or images that cause distress and anxiety. Compulsive behaviours are a reaction to ease that anxiety.
Obsessions usually revolve around certain common themes:
- Self-harm or harming others
- Unwanted or inappropriate sexual thoughts
- Fear of contamination, dirt, or germs
- Symmetry, order, and accuracy
- Difficulty dealing with uncertainty or deviations from routines
Examples of these thoughts include destructive, destressing imagery, like driving your car into a crowd of people or the fear that shaking hands will make you contract germs (even during pre-COVID times).
These are repetitive, sometimes ritualistic (religious and otherwise) behaviours meant to reduce the anxiety caused by obsessions. They might provide temporary relief but are generally excessive, unrealistic, and do not fix the problem one intends to fix.
Compulsions can look like:
- Excessive washing and cleaning
- Adhering to an extremely strict routine
- Following orderliness as a law
- Checking or counting repeatedly
Examples of compulsions include washing hands till the skin becomes raw, checking and rechecking doors and switches, repeating a word or phrase as a ritual, etc.
OCD: Myths vs. facts
Now that you are familiar with how OCD actually looks, should we debunk some common (misused) statements people often make about the disorder? Let’s get started!
People with OCD are ‘neat freaks’
Some people with OCD might feel compelled to compulsively clean, wash, or tidy. However, that is not what OCD is limited to. These compulsions are accompanied by other behaviours, such as constant checking and counting. Plus, compulsive behaviours like cleaning are a relief response to obsessive thoughts. Therefore, simply preferring things to be clean is very different from the intrusive thoughts causing an obsession, leading to compulsive cleaning.
OCD is not a personality quirk, and labelling cleanliness as OCD in a non-clinical, casual way is highly harmful to people going through the various debilitating symptoms of the disorder.
It is okay to joke about OCD
Several portrayals of OCD in pop culture and media propagate that it is okay to joke about symptoms of OCD. For example, think of how Monica Geller’s character from F.R.I.E.N.D.S was a butt of her friends’ jokes because she liked things to be neat and orderly (while Monica was not explicitly diagnosed on the show, she displayed several symptoms of OCD).
This trivialises the symptoms of OCD as well as the distress it causes to the people actually suffering from it. On top of that, it can also cause people with OCD to feel guilty, ashamed, and helpless about a condition beyond their control.
Everyone with OCD experiences the same thing
OCD is a spectrum. People with OCD experience various types of obsessions and compulsions, and these can look starkly different from one person to the other.
For example, OCD does not always include compulsive behaviour and can sometimes be purely obsessional. This also disproves the myth that excessive cleaning is synonymous with OCD because the symptoms some people with OCD face might not include cleaning behaviours at all (and their condition is still completely valid).
People with OCD just need to “chill”
Often, a person with OCD is aware that their thoughts are irrational and are not rooted in reality. Yet, that is not enough to stop them; the anxiety they feel can still be disruptive, causing compulsions. They would never choose to have that anxiety if it were in their control, and naturally, they can't “just chill” since OCD is not a switch they simply turn 'on' and 'off' in their brains.
People often suggest that in order to manage obsessive thoughts, individuals with OCD should distract themselves and not overthink. However, distractions do not work for symptoms of OCD. Ignoring obsessive thoughts can lead someone with OCD to experience unpleasant mental images that are difficult to deal with.
If you feel like you’re experiencing any obsessive or compulsive symptoms, remember that treatment for OCD is readily available! Through standardised assessments, a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist can also help you understand if you have OCD or whether your symptoms stem from a different mental health condition. No matter what your concern is, they can suggest a plan to tackle it, and while OCD does not completely go away, therapy and medication certainly make it manageable.