By Michael Vallejo
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and backgrounds. Despite this, many people still have misconceptions about OCD and may not fully understand the complexities of the disorder. In this article, we will look at some of the most common OCD myths. Keep on reading.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that occurs when an individual gets caught up in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. People diagnosed with OCD can have obsessions or compulsions, or both.
Obsessions refer to unwanted and intrusive thoughts, urges, or mental images that occur repeatedly and cause distress. These obsessions can come frequently, causing anxiety and disrupting everyday routines.
Compulsions are repetitive thoughts and behaviors that an individual feels the urge to have or do to get rid of obsessions. These include behaviors to avoid situations that trigger intrusive thoughts. Like obsessions, compulsions can get in the way of a person’s life.
People diagnosed with OCD tend to engage in all-or-nothing thinking or black-and-white thinking. This means that they think in extremes or absolutes, leaving no room for in-betweens. This type of dichotomous thinking happens because people who have OCD have trouble accepting uncertainty.
For example, a person with OCD might think “If I don’t clean up this mess well enough and someone slips and gets hurt, then it would be my fault”. Another instance is for people with contamination OCD, something can be only either clean or dirty. This results in getting stuck in a loop of checking, analyzing, and cleaning to obtain certainty.
The exact cause of OCD is unknown, but researchers suggest that it involves communication problems in the brain. Besides communication issues in the brain, environmental factors — such as traumatic life events and chronic stress — also play an essential part in the development of OCD. Additionally, it is likely that genetics has an important part in developing the disorder.
The Importance of Addressing OCD Myths and Misconceptions
Numerous myths and misconceptions surround OCD, which can promote stigma for the people who have it. This can lead to numerous harmful consequences, such as feelings of isolation and self-doubt for those affected. Additionally, people who experience the stigma have fewer chances for social interaction and employment.
Social stigma can make not just OCD, but also other mental health problems like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia worse, which prevents them from seeking help. By addressing the OCD myths and misconceptions, more people will have an accurate understanding of OCD — leading to a more inclusive and supportive community.
10 OCD Myths and Misconceptions
Below are some myths and misconceptions about OCD:
OCD Myth #1: OCD is just being overly clean or organized
OCD is often misunderstood as being overly concerned with cleanliness and organization, but it is more complicated than that. For example, a person with no OCD may enjoy cleaning and organizing. But someone diagnosed with OCD might have an excessive fear of contaminants and fear of spreading them, which leads to compulsions such as excessive washing.
Another example is the need for things to be perfect, also known as symmetry obsessions. This leads to repeated ordering, arranging, or aligning things. People diagnosed with OCD feels the urge to perform these compulsions to ease their anxiety. These not just take time, but also affect a person’s social, academic, and professional life.
While contamination obsessions are common in OCD, obsessions can also be related to sex, violence, religion, responsibility, identity, relationships, and others.
OCD Myth #2: OCD is a minor personality quirk or preference
OCD is more than just a quirk or preference but is a real mental health condition that causes unwanted thoughts for people diagnosed with it. Those who struggle with this condition can’t easily control these obsessive thoughts or compulsions, even though they recognize them as excessive or irrational.
Besides communication issues in the brain, environmental factors — such as traumatic life events and chronic stress — also play an essential part in the development of OCD.
OCD Myth #3: Compulsions are always physical actions
Compulsions refer to thoughts or behaviors that a person with OCD uses to get rid of obsessions and reduce anxiety.
Examples of compulsive actions include excessive handwashing, toothbrushing, or showering in fear of contamination. Another common example is repeating actions, such as going in or out of doors, tapping, blinking, etc.
But compulsions can also be thoughts. For instance, a person with OCD might count mentally while performing a task to end on a “safe” number. Another example is mentally reviewing past events or conversations repeatedly to remove doubt.
Compared to physical compulsions, mental compulsions are harder to spot since only the individual experiencing them is aware of the compulsion.
OCD Myth #4: OCD is rare and doesn't affect many people
OCD can affect people of all ages, sex, race, and background. The disorder can develop as early as preschool. For most people, symptoms can first appear between the age of 8 and 12 or between late teens and early adult years.
An estimated 1 in 100 adults have OCD. For children and teens, 1 in 200 have OCD. This means that between 2 to 3 million adults and around 500,000 youth in the US are affected by this mental health condition.
OCD Myth #5: Everyone has a little bit of OCD
It’s common for people to say that they’re “a little OCD” when it comes to cleaning or organizing. But this act can be dismissive of the suffering of those diagnosed with the mental health condition.
The reality is that OCD is a real mental health condition that can disrupt a person’s life. Compulsions and obsessions can take up hours, making it difficult to perform daily activities or enjoy relationships with others. For others, it even affects education and employment.
OCD Myth #6: OCD is just a phase and will go away on its own
OCD is a real mental health disorder that requires a diagnosis and treatment under the guidance of a licensed mental health care practitioner. When left untreated, the condition can worsen over time.
Persons with OCD will benefit from early detection of their condition. Early treatment can help reduce the effects and impacts of the disorder in their life.
OCD Myth #7: OCD is caused by a weak character or lack of willpower
People with OCD struggle with unwanted thoughts and behaviors, which means that it will take more than willpower alone to overcome this condition.
OCD is a complex condition that requires the proper treatment under the guidance of a professional. They are trained and knowledgeable in developing treatment plans that fit the needs of the patient. Additionally, they can also help create a safe environment for patients overcoming OCD.
OCD Myth #8: OCD is untreatable
OCD can be treated with the help of a mental health care professional. The longevity of treatment will depend on the case and how much it’s affecting the person’s life. Generally, a short course of therapy is recommended for mild cases. Severe cases might need more extensive treatment with combined therapy and medication.
One effective treatment for OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which is a type of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). This involves exposure, or the practice of confronting intrusive thoughts, images, situations, and objects that cause distress. Response prevention involves refusing compulsive behaviors.
Aside from ERP, which is done with the guidance of a therapist, medications may also be prescribed by a physician or a psychiatrist. These two are considered the initial treatment recommended for OCD.
OCD Myth #9: Avoiding triggers will cure OCD
People with OCD might try to avoid triggers to reduce symptoms. This coping strategy involves avoiding thoughts, people, places, and situations that can trigger obsessions. For example, someone with a fear of germs may avoid using public restrooms altogether.
But this approach can worsen OCD symptoms. The more triggers are avoided, the more it can make fears stronger. Additionally, it can cause isolation to the person affected.
OCD Myth #10: OCD is the same for everyone
Obsessions and compulsions can change over time for people diagnosed with OCD. Other than that, the severity of symptoms can wax and wane over a long period of time.
OCD is not the same for everyone. For example, obsessions can be classified into different categories:
- Contamination obsession (e.g. fear of germs, environmental contaminants, or disease)
- Sexual obsession (e.g. fear of acting on sex-related impulses)
- Violent obsession (e.g. fear of self-harm impulse)
- Religious obsession (e.g. fear of committing acts that are considered bad)
- Responsibility obsession (e.g. fear of causing harm because of not being careful)
- Identity obsession (e.g. excessive concern with sexual orientation)
- Perfectionism obsession (e.g. excessive concern with symmetry)
Because OCD can look different for everyone, it’s important to get diagnosed by a mental healthcare provider to get an accurate diagnosis.
The Bottom Line
There is a general lack of understanding not just about OCD, but also other mental health conditions in general. By debunking these OCD myths, we can help reduce the stigma associated with OCD and create a more supportive environment for those living with the disorder. This way, people with OCD can succeed in their treatment.
Michael Vallejo is a licensed clinical social worker with a private therapy practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He specializes in helping children and teens with mental health concerns. He is an advocate for mental health awareness and is the founder of Mental Health Center Kids, a website that provides resources and support for parents, teachers, and mental health professionals who care for children and teens.