Debunking the Myth: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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About a month ago, I polled many of you and asked if you’d rather learn more about Bipolar Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I was really surprised to learn there was almost an exact tie. There was approximately one more person curious about OCD than Bipolar, so I sure hope that lucky person is reading this post!

Just to review, you’re reading a post in my current blog series called Debunking the Myth: Commonly Misused Mental Health Words. Click the following links to read previous posts on panic attack and trauma

OCD: probably one of the most thrown-around acronyms, at least in the circles in which I find myself. The way I hear the term used often sounds like, “She’s so OCD” or “I’m just OCD like that.” Typically, the user of the phrase is referring to engaging in repetitive behavior or feeling overly busy or frantic or trying to verbally make sense of feeling internal anxiety. To their (or your or my) credit, the description is not far from the actual definition of OCD. But, just like the other terms we’ve debunked, it will serve us well to learn the science behind Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in order to more fully accept each other and show kindness to those around us. My hope with this series is to educate in order to lessen stigma – and mental health is so easy to stigmatize. 

What we think OCD is. Similar to above, we tend to think OCD describes a person who folds each article of clothing in the exact same way. Or maybe you have to make sure the front door is locked at least three times before going to bed. Since we just said goodbye to the holiday season, “making the list and checking it twice” may have meant checking it excessively to make sure everything was in order by December 25th. In my mind, a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may look a little frazzled on the outside or may talk quickly or seem overly nervous in social situations. I share this stereotype I’m guilty of in order to let you in on a secret: we all do it. Our society loves to put us in boxes with labels in order to try and understand and make room for us. And like we’ve talked about, this is sometimes comforting for the person asking for help. But, when we call someone by their label, like, “He is so OCD,” we reduce that person to a set of characteristics that are mostly likely behaviors, not human identity.

What OCD really is. OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and falls under the Anxiety Disorders category in the DSM-V. Here is the criteria for diagnosing OCD: 

  • Obsessive and/or compulsive behavior is present: 
    • Unwanted and intrusive, recurrent, persistent thoughts; the individual tries to ignore or suppress them 
    • Repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels compelled to perform in order to reduce anxiety or prevent a situation or event. The compulsions are often not related to the anticipated event. 
  • The above thoughts/behaviors take up one or more hours per day and cause impairment in functioning in one or more settings (work, school, home, etc.) 

Almost 50% of those diagnosed with OCD consider suicide and about 25% will actually attempt suicide. This disorder goes far beyond frequent hand-washing or racing thoughts; while these behaviors are what we might see on the outside, the internal struggle within individuals suffering from OCD is unseen and misunderstood.

Getting help.  When we don’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes with our loved ones (or ourself!) it is easy to minimize or mock or ignore that person in order to overcome our own discomfort. Thoughts and behaviors associated with either increased anxiety or diagnosed OCD may cause us to be late to special events, limit our communication with friends and family, or even lead to hospitalization. Mental illness in our society is sometimes viewed as an inconvenience, and we may be tempted to say, “Just stop thinking like that!” Or, “Just don’t do what you don’t want to do anymore.” It’s not that easy.  And in the case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, that kind of response contributes to devaluing a person’s experience and increased hopelessness that life will ever be more manageable. Getting and providing help starts with our own awareness of what we understand and what we don’t; then, we can make a choice to learn more in order to validate those around us.  

One last word.  If you struggle with thoughts or actions that you wish you did not have, and perhaps have thought, “This is just who I am,” I encourage you to reach out to your primary care doctor, psychiatrist, or a counselor to talk through your concerns. Our brain is powerful and complicated, and having a team of people around us to help wade through the wires can bring relief and hope.
Resource: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition

Written by Lauren Eisleben