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Isn't Everyone a Little Bit OCD?

This question reflects harmful misunderstandings about OCD.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

When scrolling through my Instagram feed, I noticed a post about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that provoked a lot of attention in the comments. The question posed in the main image was, “Isn’t everyone a little bit OCD?” Readers below fired back comments such as:

  • Asking if you can be a little bit OCD is like asking, “Can you be a little bit pregnant?” or, “Can you have a little bit of a heart attack?”
  • I hate it when people say, “I like my house clean. I’m so OCD.” Ugh. My disorder is not your joke.

Although certainly OCD can vary in its intensity, it is a clinical diagnosis, not a personality description of someone who cleans a lot or is organized. The people commenting on the Instagram post obviously felt that using the term “OCD” in a casual way trivialized their struggle.

Some of the issue may be more about misinformation concerning OCD, rather than a mean-spirited attempt to add stigma to mental health issues.

What is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, otherwise known as OCD, is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by persistent, obsessive thoughts and images, which create anxiety that is alleviated by performing compulsive behaviors, like organizing pens perfectly by color, checking a doorknob a certain number of times, or other repetitive actions. OCD symptoms can range from mild to debilitating, and for many people, the obsessive thoughts and compulsions become more controlling as time goes on.

How to tell if you have OCD

Many people experience fleeting moments of obsessions or have “pet peeves” that bother them. These are markedly different from true OCD, because these people can ignore their annoyances in a way that someone suffering from OCD cannot. If you’re trying to determine if you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, start by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Do you experience obsessions, which are:

  • Recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced as intrusive and inappropriate and cause a great deal of distress
  • The thoughts are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems
  • The thoughts are extremely difficult to ignore or suppress

2. Do you experience compulsions, which are:

  • Repetitive behaviors, such as hand washing or checking, that you feel driven to do in response to the obsession
  • The compulsions are aimed at reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event from happening, and are clearly excessive

3. Do you spend a significant amount of time dealing with your obsessions and compulsions (more than an hour per day)?

4. Do your obsessions and compulsions interfere with your day-to-day functioning and relationships?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

OCD requires specialized treatment

Most people with OCD have tried many tips and tricks to stop the behavior, and although some work for a bit, nothing gets them to a place of being able to consistently manage it. People then blame themselves for not working hard enough to get better, but it is not their fault. OCD treatment is an in-depth process that requires working with a psychologist or other mental health professional who is trained in a treatment called Exposure and Response Prevention. Exposure simply means facing or confronting one's fears repeatedly until the fear subsides (called habituation). Response prevention means refraining from compulsions, avoidance, or escape behaviors. Regular “talk therapy” is unlikely to help those with OCD, so don't be afraid to screen potential therapists and make sure they do Exposure Therapy. For help in finding a therapist trained in Exposure and Response Prevention, consult the websites of the OCD Foundation, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy. If you search for a therapist through Psychology Today's Find a Therapist, you can filter your results by OCD and Exposure and Response Prevention.

To summarize:

Question: Isn't everyone a little OCD?

Answer: No.

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