A little more than 1 in 100 people live with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) - yet it’s still largely misrepresented in the media.
We’ve all seen quirky sitcom stars and cleaning fiends on TV, but these depictions are at best inaccurate and at worst harmful.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterised by:
- Obsessions: intrusive thoughts that are regular or difficult to control;
- Intense anxiety or distress from these thoughts;
- Compulsions: repetitive behaviours or thought patterns that the person with OCD feels compelled to perform.
These compulsions might be intended to prevent an intrusive thought from taking place “for real”, or to alleviate the anxiety associated with the thought. Performing these behaviours can result in temporary relief but the obsessions will return.
The next step to understanding OCD is smashing the myths that surround it. Here are a few common tropes, followed by the reality (for most people that have it)...
Everyone’s a bit like that
You might not know that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts. What separates people with and without OCD is their brain’s reaction to some of them.
People without OCD might be shocked by their spontaneous thoughts, but ultimately recognise them as bizarre and fleeting.
Those with OCD are more likely to attach meaning to the thought or continue a distressing thought cycle triggered by it. They might become overwhelmingly preoccupied with the idea of their thought coming true.
This disorder can make the simplest tasks debilitating - so, no, not everyone’s “a little OCD”.
It’s all about tidiness and order
One of the biggest stereotypes about someone with OCD is the “clean freak” - the person who is terrified of germs and will flip out if you move anything out of place.
While people with OCD can have fears about hygiene and they may like to keep things their own way, cleanliness is only a small part of the symptoms that make up common OCD obsessions. It may affect some people’s whole lives, and it may not affect others at all.
It’s a disorder rooted in control - but that doesn’t mean those with it are control freaks in everything they do.
It’s caused by stress
OCD causes stress, and it’s often exacerbated by stress - but stress isn’t necessarily the cause. People aren’t temporarily cured whenever they’re happy or content!
One of the most frustrating things about OCD (like any anxiety disorder) is that it can occur even when people are at a relatively low period of stress. Sometimes, it can even ramp up to keep the brain busy!
Some people with OCD might feel upset that their condition affects fun events, or may cause them to need support even if it appears they have nothing to worry about on the surface.
There’s only one kind
As mentioned earlier, OCD is a complex condition with an almost endless web of potential triggers and obsessions.
The most common obsessive thoughts can involve:
- Fears of dirt, germs, or contamination;
- Fears of someone becoming ill or hurt;
- Fears of disasters or accidents;
- A need for symmetry, order, or feeling “just right”;
- A need to count or repeat certain words or phrases;
- A need to repeatedly check something is done right.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! New behaviours can pop up from day to day or over the course of someone’s life. They may be affected more or less by the same thing at different times.
People with OCD are just neurotic and need to relax
Just relax! Just try it! Isn’t it easy? No…?
It bears repeating: what characterises OCD is unwanted, uncontrollable thoughts. It can cause chronic feelings of doubt, anxiety, and threat.
Often, people with OCD know that their fears are not necessarily proportional to an actual risk - but if that helped, they wouldn’t have OCD in the first place. It’s like telling someone with depression to “just be happy”.
It makes sense to the people that have it
People might think that OCD sufferers are delusional or have a different grip on reality than those without it due to the way they think and behave.
However, most people with it are highly aware that their perceptions are not the same as most people. It can be disorienting to be so emotionally affected by them as a result.
OCD cycles can be time-consuming, uncomfortable, embarrassing, or plain bizarre - yet by its nature a person still feels compelled to do it.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder affects everyone differently, but if you’re struggling with similar thoughts, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP.
They might suggest treatment like counselling, therapy (most often group sessions or cognitive behaviour therapy, CBT), or medication. Any choice is up to you.
OCD-UK is the UK’s number-one OCD charity and has a range of resources, support groups, and awareness events for those affected and their loved ones. Your local Mind hub may also offer counselling or social events to support you.
If you’re becoming seriously distressed by OCD thoughts and behaviours, and you’re worried for the immediate health of yourself or someone else, call NHS Direct on 111.
Know any more myths that need busting? Let us know!