5 Min Read

5 Myths About OCD

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is one of those mental health conditions that has entered the common vernacular. Like panic disorder, depression, or Tourette syndrome, the general public knows just enough about the symptoms of OCD to toss the term around in conversation. “I’m having an OCD moment,” someone might say when straightening a pile of papers, or “Why are you so OCD?” when a friend double- or triple-checks her purse for her keys.

In reality, though, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious mental illness — just as serious as major depression or bipolar disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines OCD as “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” 

These obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors can severely interfere with the daily life of OCD sufferers and cause them and their loved ones significant distress.

Because there are so many misconceptions surrounding this mental disorder, here are five common myths, as well as the facts, to help you better understand OCD.

Myth One: Everyone’s “a little OCD” at times.

While many people might have some of the common compulsions or obsessions typical of OCD, like a tendency to wash their hands often, a preference for neatness, or superstitious behaviors like avoiding the number 13, these alone don’t comprise a diagnosis of OCD. According to the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a diagnosis of OCD requires the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both, signified by the following:

  • Recurrent and persistent thoughts, mental images, or urges
  • Intrusive and unwanted thoughts, mental images, or urges
  • Marked anxiety or distress from these obsessive thoughts
  • Attempts to ignore or suppress these thoughts by performing a compulsive or repetitive behavior also referred to as a ritual
  • Obsessions and compulsions are time-consuming, occurring more than one hour per day

In reality, about one percent of Americans suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can start in childhood or adolescence, but most commonly emerges in late teens or early adulthood.

Myth Two: OCD is just a funny personality quirk.

The behaviors of television characters like Sheldon Cooper or Detective Adrian Monk make obsessions and compulsions look comical and endearing. However, for a sufferer and their family members, OCD is not funny at all.

Remember, OCD symptoms cause anxiety, distress, and discomfort for the individual, and take up at least an hour of their day. They worry about how they appear in front of others, and their obsessive-compulsive symptoms interfere with their relationships, job performance, and schoolwork. For them, OCD is an impairment, not an attribute or personality trait.

From a mental standpoint, OCD can be debilitating. About 40% of people with OCD experience some form of depression, and more than 60% report having considered suicide.

Myth Three: OCD sufferers are neat freaks or have a phobia of germs.

Many people are familiar with the OCD rituals of handwashing or impeccable cleaning that stem from an obsessive fear of germs, contamination, or disorder. While these obsessive-compulsive symptoms are some of the most common and recognizable, there are many more fears, obsessions, compulsions, and rituals sufferers experience.

Common obsessions include the fears of committing a sin, harming one’s self or others, a loved one dying, certain numbers, colors, or words, and even of becoming a sexual predator. Common compulsions people experience include counting, repeating specific movements, praying, hoarding, ordering or arranging things for symmetry, or tapping or touching objects.

The DSM-5 lists several related disorders within the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, including:

Myth Four: People with OCD can control their symptoms.

People don’t choose to have or develop any mental health disorder, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. Researchers believe that genetic factors may be one cause of OCD, in addition to environmental factors. Many OCD sufferers have an abnormality or difference in a specific area of the brain.

And while psychologists and other therapists can’t predict OCD, risk factors include a history of child abuse, suffering a traumatic experience, a diagnosis of depression or anxiety disorder, or a tic disorder. Also, children may develop a form of OCD called pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS), after having a streptococcal infection.

The intrusive thoughts associated with OCD are unwanted, and the impulses to perform rituals are uncontrollable. The compulsion part of OCD is the only way a sufferer can relieve the anxiety of their obsessive thoughts. In other words, OCD symptoms aren’t something people can turn on or off. However, they can learn to control them better, which leads to the last myth about OCD. 

Myth Five: OCD cannot be treated.

There’s indeed no cure for OCD. However, effective treatment for OCD symptoms is available. Psychotherapy, psychiatric medication, support groups, and relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga have all proven helpful, and are often used in combination with one another. Formal therapy is a necessary complement to a self-care plan.

There are several types of therapy available for individuals with OCD, but cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective. With CBT, your therapist helps you to understand your intrusive thoughts and learn to develop new behaviors to cope with them. One form of CBT called exposure and response prevention (ERP) deliberately exposes individuals to specific situations that trigger anxiety or compulsions so your therapist can help you learn to lessen or deal with your usual responses or rituals.

Several types of medications are used in the treatment of OCD, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluvoxamine, fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft). In severe cases of OCD, your physician may also prescribe the antipsychotics aripiprazole (Abilify) or risperidone (Risperdal).

Don’t Wait for Treatment

If you think you might be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, your first step to relief is to visit a general practitioner for tests to rule out any medical conditions that might be causing your symptoms. If you are diagnosed with the disorder, your doctor will recommend appropriate treatment, most likely including mental health therapy.

To find the best for you to help you manage your OCD symptoms, check out With Therapy. Our revolutionary platform will match you with a therapist, psychologist, or counselor based on more than just availability – though that is key too. You can choose your best match according to specialty, years of experience, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and more. You can even request an appointment without leaving the With Therapy site. Get started on your new healthy and best life today!

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