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De-mystifying OCD: Busting myths about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

“Saying that you are ‘so OCD’ when you don’t actually have OCD is really disrespectful to people who actually suffer from the condition. It not only turns the disorder into more of a joke, but also takes away from the harm that actual OCD triggers have on people; for them, it is not merely a pet peeve, but rather a fear that disrupts their day to day life,” states Talia Curran ‘26. 

Talia Curran was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) at age 14, and went to the Junior OCD Institute at McLean Hospital for residential treatment. During her time there, she learned a lot about OCD and its symptoms while interacting with others who have OCD and countless OCD clinical specialists.

OCD has been a highly misunderstood condition, with widespread misinformation about how those affected live on a day-to-day basis. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that OCD is often a long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions), and behaviors (compulsions) that [they] feel the urge to repeat over and over. People who do not have a personal connection to OCD commonly fall victim to believing incorrect or inaccurate myths about the vast and complicated condition that affects 1.2% of the US adult population, according to NIMH

Today, with the help of Talia, the International OCD Foundation, and a few other sources, we’ll be busting some myths commonly believed by the misled general population.

Myth: OCD is just obsessing over being neat and tidy. 

Reality: There are many subtypes of OCD, and not all of them include being neat and organized. As the International OCD Foundation says, “Triggers related to cleanliness and symptoms related to washing make up only a small part of the range of OCD triggers and symptoms. People with OCD can have obsessions related to a wide variety of things, including losing control, hurting others…and many more. Similarly, the anxiety caused by these obsessions can be lessened by different compulsions, such as ‘checking’ (e.g., re-checking door locks, repeatedly making sure the oven is off), ‘repeating’ (e.g., doing the same action or ritual over and over to be sure it was done ‘correctly’), and ‘counting’ (e.g., doing things in certain numbers, counting items to certain numbers).” 

“In residential, I met several people with perfectionism OCD, but there were so many other kinds of OCD that people there dealt with,” says Talia. 

“The most common subtypes of OCD include checking, contamination, symmetry and ordering, intrusive thoughts, and hoarding,” according to Talia. The subtypes may be in affect in one the following ways.

Checking is “the need to check is the compulsion, but the obsessive fear might be to prevent damage, fire, leaks or harm,” says OCD UK. For example, door or window locks, stoves and/or other objects will be checked multiple times until there is a ‘feeling’ of certainty that they’re secure.

Contamination is “a fear of things or people that one views as dirty, disgusting, or unsafe. This can be anything ranging from bathroom floors, to a specific person who induces an unclean feeling. Many contamination rituals involving cleaning and washing, like excessive showering (sometimes for hours at a time), but they also may involve avoiding potential contaminants, seeking reassurance from others that they are not contaminated, or throwing away contaminated objects, such as an article of clothing,” says Talia. 

“Contamination OCD does usually involve a strong fear of dirtiness, but it’s much more than just liking things clean. In fact, a lot of people with contamination OCD struggle with cleanliness outside of their OCD symptoms; for example, they may have piles of trash in their home that they are unable to clean up because they will feel contaminated by touching it,” describes Talia. 

Symmetry/Ordering in OCD are obsessions characterized by the need for things to be perfect, exact, ‘just right,’ symmetrical, correctly aligned, and related compulsions include ordering and arranging, evening up or aligning things, and touching or tapping, says the National Library of Medicine. An example of a symmetry compulsion is turning all tin cans to face the same direction or aligning hanging photos so that they are perfectly straight. 

Intrusive thoughts are, according to OCD UK in the context of OCD, where a person generally suffers with obsessional thoughts that are repetitive and often disturbing in nature; an example of this are thoughts of causing violent harm to loved ones which don’t involve specific immediate compulsions. A common example of this is “Magical Thinking Intrusive Thoughts,” the fear that thinking about something bad will make it likely to happen. These intrusive thoughts are repetitive and not voluntarily produced, they cause the sufferer extreme distress. However, what we do know is that people with OCD are the least likely people to actually act on the thoughts, partly because they find them so repugnant and go to great lengths to avoid them and prevent them from happening.

Hoarding is where a person accumulates a lot of items, including things that seem to be of no use to the collector. These items clutter one’s living spaces, and keep the person from using their spaces as they were intended. For example, a person may hoard rather useless items such as old papers or clothes that no longer fit them. These items can cause interruptions in day-to-day life. Some estimate that as many as 1 in 4 people with OCD also have compulsive hoarding. Recent research suggests that nearly 1 in 5 compulsive hoarders have non-hoarding OCD symptoms, according to the International OCD Foundation

While it’s true that some people with OCD feel urges connected to neatness and cleanliness, there are many more ways OCD can affect individuals that the general population may not know about. Often this disorder takes over people’s lives. “OCD comes in various forms, and each person has their own unique experience with OCD. For example, some people may have intrusive thoughts, while others might feel the need to touch things a certain number of times until it feels “just right,” explains Talia. 

Myth: We’re all ‘a bit OCD’, especially when it comes to disliking disorganization.

Reality: It is false that everyone has a ‘secret OCD side’ to them that comes out when their room is a little messy. OCD is not a personality trait, or a quirk. While the average person may experience obsessions or seemingly compulsive behaviors from time to time, these urges don’t have the same sense of urgency and importance that they do for those with OCD. 

OCD is a debilitating condition that prevents many of those who have the condition from doing normal activities that the average person wouldn’t even give a second thought to, such as brushing your teeth or petting animals. “I couldn’t pet my dogs for an entire year due to OCD-related issues, and I love them more than anything,” says Talia. 

Myth: OCD is ‘all in your head’ or ‘made up.

Reality: OCD and thoughts associated with the condition cannot just be swept away with distractions or a witting change of thought. 

“It’s true that OCD is a mental disorder, but the fear and physical anxiety that it induces in people is very much real,” says Talia. “OCD initiates flight or fight response, which is a physical reaction in your body to perceived danger, so while the disorder stems from your brain, it affects much more than just that.” 

Talia shares a personal example of how OCD can manifest physically, saying, “When my hands become ‘contaminated’ according to my OCD, they feel tingly and numb until I wash them. This can last for hours until I am able to perform the compulsion.” 

OCD and thoughts associated with OCD are uncontrollable and cannot simply be ‘turned off’ or avoided with simple diversion of mind. It is life-consuming, and the disorder has prevented many from living normal lives. Hence, it is untrue that OCD is ‘made up’ or ‘all in your head.’ 

Mostly often, OCD is treated through Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP, or more simply “exposure therapy”) and/or medication. “OCD can be treated through a type of therapy called Exposure Responsive Prevention (ERP). ERP is kind of like the show Fear Factor for people with OCD; they are exposed to things that their OCD makes them afraid of and do their best to not engage in compulsions afterwards,” says Talia. “If someone with OCD is afraid that something bad might happen to them if they don’t tap their desk an even number of times, an ERP therapist/coach might help them to try tapping the desk an odd number of times. Doing this exposure will make them feel anxious and uncomfortable for a while, but it will also help them to get more used to what it’s like when they don’t listen to their OCD, helping to reduce the severity of their symptoms in the long run.”

People with OCD work extremely hard to battle their disorder and live normal lives, often with success; however, it is important to note that making generalized comments about the disorder can be incredibly hurtful to those affected by OCD. 

Image Sources: OCD Institute at McLean Hospital and Prosper Health

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