As we have been collectively navigating a global pandemic, it’s likely that you have heard someone use OCD as an adjective (e.g., “I’ve become so OCD with hand washing!”)
It is important to discern that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is not a personality quirk or a trait that we can all be a little bit sometimes or in certain contexts. Rather, OCD is a diagnosable mental health condition that can be extremely distressing to live with. Living with OCD can feel like your own mind is tormenting you with debilitating anxiety, which can in turn lead to hopelessness and depression.
OCD is a medical disorder at the neurological level, meaning that those with OCD have brains that are wired differently than those without the disorder. While everyone can experience intrusive or unwanted thoughts (e.g., “What if that car were to swerve into mine and cause an accident?”), these thoughts can stick with a person with OCD and become obsessions because of the way their brain is wired. A person without OCD can easily brush off these thoughts, whereas those with OCD cannot.
Alongside its neurological differentiators, OCD also has a strong genetic component. This means that a person cannot feasibly start having the disorder one day out of the blue or shut it off.
Essentially, OCD is like a malfunctioning home security system that constantly alerts you of false alarms. It is irrational, in that thoughts are being falsely flagged as dangerous. It is important to note that the intrusive or unwanted thoughts characteristic of OCD are ego-dystonic (i.e., not aligned with the person’s self-concept). For example, a person might fixate on thoughts like “Am I a pedophile?” or “What if I kill someone?” However, these thoughts are not aligned with reality. It should go without saying that a person with OCD is no more likely to be a pedophile or murderer, for example, than a person without the disorder. The person might then feel compelled to engage in compulsions that are either excessive or not connected in any real way with the obsessions that they are trying to neutralize or disprove.
If these symptoms resonate with you, please know that you are not alone and that you are not your thoughts. The shame associated with the sometimes taboo nature of intrusive thoughts can be a monumental barrier to accessing help. In seeking treatment, it is important to find a therapist who has a compassionate understanding of the disorder.
The next time you feel tempted to make light of OCD, please remember that roughly 25% of those with the disorder attempt suicide. It is not a joke.
Beverly Reed, MACP, is trained in many areas such as anxiety and depression, plus many more. For more information on Beverly and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.