According to the International OCD Foundation, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD for short, is a mental health condition that occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.
What are obsessions?
Obsessions are typically described as pervasive and intrusive thoughts 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. 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 can be thought of as a reaction to the obsessions. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that a person uses with the intention of neutralizing or counteracting their obsessions, or making their obsessions go away. Compulsions are life-altering and time-consuming — an important distinction between people living with OCD as a clinical condition and those who have obsessive behaviors.
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, and traveling or going to work might be impossible for that person. For someone whose obsession is perfection, 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 being a “neat freak” condition. This can be very hurtful language, setting a dangerous precedent for how we speak about mental health.
In particular, OCD can manifest as a very serious disorder. It is a chronic mental health condition; for many, it can be debilitating and treatment-refractory. Despite its use in common vernacular, OCD can be as serious as other serious mental illnesses (SMIs) like bipolar 1 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, take a few minutes to continue learning about this mental health condition that affects 1 in 40 American adults. Be intentional with your language. Be 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.