Debunking the Biggest Myths About OCD
The phrase, “I’m so OCD about….” is constantly thrown around in movies, books, and television. Typically, the individual with OCD is seen compulsively washing their hands, being obsessive about neatness, or excessively cleaning. However, what is meant to be a lighthearted joke or reference ends up significantly diminishing the severity of OCD and contributing to a misunderstanding of the disorder.
So, in honor of International OCD Week (October 7 - October 13th), let’s debunk some of the biggest myths about OCD.
Myth: We are all “a little bit OCD.”
Fact: OCD is not a personality trait or quirk.
It is a mental health disorder that affects every 1 in 100 adults and 1 in 200 children and adolescents. That means that over three million adults and half a million kids are struggling with this disorder every day.
Myth: OCD is just about cleaning, organizing, and hand-washing.
Fact: OCD is characterized by Obsessions and Compulsions that significantly impact an individual’s functioning and causes significant distress.
Unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts, urges, or images that an individual persistently has and that causes that individual a lot of anxiety or stress.
Although some individuals with OCD may have concerns about contamination, many individuals with OCD have obsessions about losing control, harming oneself or loved ones, unwanted sexual thoughts, religion and morality, and symmetry/exactness.
For example, an individual may have an obsessive thought that they left their stove on and their house is going to burn down. Or someone may worry that if they don’t touch a doorknob a certain number of times, that their parents may die.
Behaviors or mental acts that an individual performs to reduce the anxiety or distress brought on by the obsession.
Compulsions can consist of washing, checking, or counting. But, common compulsions also consist of mentally reviewing events to prevent harm to oneself or others, repeating certain words or phrases, or undoing/cancelling out certain words, numbers, or phrases.
For example, in response to the intrusive thought that an individual may have left the stove on, he or she may begin to check the stove every time he or she leaves the house, regardless of whether the stove was used.
Myth: People with OCD just need to stop doing their compulsions.
Fact: It’s not that easy.
An individual’s compulsion is driven by anxiety and fear; and although it may seem illogical to someone else, it feels absolutely necessary to the individual. Because of this, the only way for the individual to stop doing the compulsions is to gradually confront their fears. This type of therapy is called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).
In ERP, individuals learn to gradually and repeatedly confront the situations, thoughts, and images that make them anxious or cause them distress and to resist the accompanying compulsive behaviors. By doing so, individuals learn that:
Our feared situations, outcomes, or triggers are not as dangerous and scary as initially thought.
Our anxious feelings and body sensations are not as bad as we make them out to be and, typically, when we stay in an anxiety provoking situation long enough, our anxious feelings will subside.
We are capable of tolerating the anxiety, risk, and uncertainty that we have avoided for so long.
Our feared outcomes usually don't occur; and if they do, we can manage it better than we thought.
So, the next time you hear someone say, “I am so OCD, ” it’s important to correct the individual and educate them about what it really means to have OCD. And, if you, or someone you know, are struggling, seek out help. Silence about OCD only contributes to its misunderstanding and perpetuation of the myths.