This post was originally written for International OCD Awareness Week.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health disorder that occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
What are obsessions?
Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that often leave those who have them disturbed, scared, disgusted, or doubtful. People living with OCD often recognize that the obsessive thoughts are irrational or illogical, but they have no control over whether or not they think of them. They often attempt to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges, or images or to neutralize them with some other thought or action (such as performing a compulsion).
Some common examples of obsessions include a fear of contamination (either by germs, dirt, diseases, etc.), fear of impulse (such as hurting oneself or others), and obsessions related to perfectionism (such as needing to know or remember a certain fact, or concerns about things being “even”).
What are compulsions?
Compulsions are defined by repetitive behaviors or thoughts that a person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly. These behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or distress, or preventing some dreaded event or situation from happening. However, these behaviors or mental acts are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent, or are clearly excessive in nature. Compulsions are time-consuming or cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning— an important distinction between people living with OCD as a clinical condition and those who have obsessive behaviors.
How OCD Works
While many people will have obsessive thoughts or behaviors at some point during their lives, that does not mean each of us has a bit of “OCD” in us. Language like, “I’m so OCD about that” or, “I need to have all my socks color-coded. I’m so OCD!” is not only inaccurate but can be offensive to people actually living with the condition.
People who live with OCD sometimes struggle to do simple tasks because of their obsessions and compulsions. For example, pouring a cup of coffee might take twenty minutes for someone who has an obsessive fear of germ contamination.
For someone whose obsession is symmetry, stubbing their toe might mean then having to stub their other toe to make the sensation “even” on both sides.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is never something to joke about or to trivialize as a “neat freak” condition. This can be very hurtful language, setting a dangerous precedent for how we speak about mental health.
OCD is a chronic mental health condition; for many, it can be debilitating. Despite its use in common vernacular, OCD can be as serious as other serious mental illnesses (SMIs) like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, with proper treatment, family involvement, and a strong network of support, many with OCD are able to still live fulfilling lives.
This week is International OCD Awareness Week, so take a few minutes to continue learning about this mental health condition that affects 1 in 40 American adults. Be intentional with your language. Serve as a support system, advocate, and friend for those struggling with their mental health this week. And remember, don’t be someone who increases the stigma around OCD — be someone who breaks it.
Our blog has more tips on how to improve your mental health, such as learning about what a panic disorder is and what self-care strategies to employ during the pandemic.