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Myths vs Facts: Debunking OCD Stereotypes



Abstract

OCD or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a chronic mental health condition that involves unwanted and repetitive thoughts and/or strong and sometimes irrational urges to do a particular task, such as skipping a step when walking up the stairs or ensuring that you take only eight steps to go to the bed from the bathroom. People with OCD are aware that some of their compulsions and obsessions are irrational; however, they are unable to control them as these can be coping mechanisms for anxiety. OCD is, in fact, very common—it affects 2 in 100 people: that is 156 million people around the world.[1] Despite it being very common, numerous people have a distorted view of what OCD is, often due to the way it is portrayed in popular media. This article will discuss the common stereotypes surrounding OCD and aims to dispel these myths.


Introduction

When one meets a person with OCD, they assume that the quirky person is obsessed with cleanliness and order and lives in constant fear. The abbreviation, OCD, has also entered our everyday language; people often exclaim that a person is OCD, especially if that person is obsessed with cleaning (this is a form of ableist language). Popular media has also minimised OCD to quirks and humour and has increased the amount of misinformation in society. For example, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is widely believed by the public to have OCD just because he loves to keep things in an ordered manner, knocks on the door only three times, and does not let anyone sit on his spot. He likes these habits and wants to do them, but he is also very rigid and uncompromising about them. These quirks are often used as sources of humour in the show. However, people with OCD do not necessarily like being obsessively clean, orderly, or performing certain tasks; they feel a compulsion to do it and they cannot help it.[2] Therefore, this assumption is slightly inaccurate. On a side note, not all people with OCD are concerned about hygiene and cleanliness. Some of them are messy and unorganised!

The representation of OCD in media has also caused the public to confuse OCD with OCPD, i.e., Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. People with OCPD tend to be a little more rigid than people with OCD.


OCD Myths & Stereotypes

This section of the article will look at the various myths and stereotypes surrounding OCD in detail.


Myth #1: ‘All people with OCD are cleanliness freaks and germaphobes, and the main symptom of OCD is hand-washing.’


Fact: The most common misconception about OCD is that people with OCD are obsessed with keeping things neat. As mentioned earlier, while some people may obsess over cleanliness, others can be very messy. According to Dr Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation and a recognised expert on OCD, a cleanliness complex can also be a personality trait. He further added, 'And that’s part of the confusion. If it’s a personality trait, you have control — you can choose to do it or not. If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, you’re doing it out of unrelenting debilitating anxiety.'[3] OCD is not about frequent washing of hands, it is about a collection of obsessions and compulsions. Some examples include:


Compulsions: Repeatedly checking if the doors are locked; counting objects, letters, numbers, and words; hoarding; frequently seeking reassurance; checking your work again and again to ensure you did not make any errors.


Obsessions: Intrusive thoughts including fear of harming oneself; fear of blurting out obscenities or insults; concerns of getting an illness or disease; concerns of blasphemy; being perfect; etc.[4]


Myth #2: ‘Kids cannot have OCD. If that is the case, it is due to bad parenting.’


Fact: Anyone can have OCD at any age, so kids can also have OCD. When it comes to kids, obsessive-compulsive symptoms typically show up between ages 8 and 12 and between late teens and early adulthood.[5] In fact, the World Health Organisation has ranked OCD as one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability for individuals between 15 and 44 years of age.[6] Even if a way of parenting is not ideal, it would not cause OCD. A study from Johns Hopkins has shown that obsessive-compulsive disorder runs in families and has a strong genetic basis.[7] However, a child’s relations with their family, parenting, and home environment can decide if their OCD gets better or exacerbates.


Myth #3: ‘People with OCD do not know that they are acting irrationally. If they had known, they would have stopped.’


Fact: People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are aware that some of their actions are irrational, but are unable to avoid these thoughts and actions. This is what makes living with OCD hard. Dr Natascha M. Santos, a psychologist, said in her TED talk, “OCD sufferers report feeling crazy for experiencing anxiety based on irrational thoughts and finding it difficult to control their responses.”[8] These obsessions and compulsions often disrupt daily life as they are exhausting, time-consuming, and uncontrollable. Logic may not help people with OCD reduce their anxiety regarding something. Most people with OCD find compulsions a coping mechanism for the distress caused by obsessive thoughts.


Myth #4: ‘We are all a little “OCD”.’


Fact: Firstly, OCD is NOT a list of personality traits and quirks that even if you have one of them, you would qualify as having OCD. Everyone has their own set of idiosyncrasies and quirks but that does not always mean they have OCD. OCD is part of the anxiety disorder umbrella, and for people with OCD, i.e., actually diagnosed with it, these compulsions stem from anxiety. OCD is not a joke and it can be hard to live with as one may miss out on a lot of things due to time-consuming obsessions and compulsions.

Secondly, OCD is not an adjective or figure of speech, so people must stop using it that way. It is grammatically incorrect and using phrases like ‘they are so OCD’ can invalidate a person’s experience with this condition, and lead to more misinformation. This would make OCD seem like a not-so-serious medical condition. Would a person say, ‘they are so cancer,’ or, ‘they act like they have dementia’? Think about it.


Myth #5: ‘OCD is not treatable.’


Fact: OCD is definitely treatable. Most people do not seek treatment for OCD due to embarrassment and the stigma attached to mental health conditions. This may be the reason for the common view that mental conditions are not treatable. OCD cannot be cured, like most mental illnesses or conditions, but it can be controlled with the right treatment. OCD treatment generally includes Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and face-your-fears therapy.[9] Sometimes, healthcare providers provide the wrong treatment for OCD, and this can have harmful effects. Some of them include interventions labelled as CBT, thought-stopping, cognitive therapy, and psychoanalytic therapy.[10]


Conclusion

OCD is very common, yet it is one of the most frequently misunderstood conditions. People confuse it with other mental health conditions like OCPD, and people restrict OCD to a specific set of symptoms, like hand-washing, due to what is often portrayed in popular media. If you are a person with OCD, do not let the myths about OCD stop you from getting the right treatment, and do not let people lower your self-esteem with these myths; you know who you are.


It is time to create awareness about OCD. Do you have any ideas? Comment down below!


References


[1] Murphy, Dennis L, Kiara R Timpano, Michael G Wheaton, Benjamin D Greenberg, and Euripedes C. Miguel. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Its Related Disorders: A Reappraisal of Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Concepts.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. Les Laboratoires Servier, June 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181955/.


[2] Keeler, JJ. “How OCD Is Portrayed in Movies & TV Shows.” Impulse. Impulse Therapy, December 18, 2020. https://impulsetherapy.com/how-ocd-is-portrayed-in-movies-tv-shows/.


[3] “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Brain health bootcamp. Accessed November 2, 2021. https://www.brainhealthbootcamp.org/c/obsessive-compulsive-disorder.


[4] “What Is OCD?” International OCD Foundation. International OCD Foundation. Accessed November 2, 2021. https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/.


[5] Abbey. “Myths and Facts about OCD - Participating Telehealth Provider.” Participating Telehealth Provider - Abbey Neuropsychology Clinic: Clinical Neuropsychologists: Palo Alto, CA. Abbey Neuropsychology Clinic, July 24, 2021. https://www.abbeyneuropsychologyclinic.com/myths-and-facts-about-ocd/.


[6] “Facts about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” Beyond OCD. Beyond OCD, April 2, 2018. https://beyondocd.org/ocd-facts.


[7] “Study Shows Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Runs in Families.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, April 26, 2000. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/04/000426080211.htm.


[8] “Debunking the Myths of OCD - Natascha M. Santos.” TED. TED-Ed. Accessed November 2, 2021. https://ed.ted.com/lessons/debunking-the-myths-of-ocd-natascha-m-santos.


[9] Orenstein, Beth W., Ian Chant, Jenna Fletcher, Katie Robinson, Alicia Raeburn, Andrea Kornstein, Don Rauf, Reilly Bradford, and Therese Borchard. “8 Common Myths about OCD.” EverydayHealth.com. Everyday Health, October 13, 2011. https://www.everydayhealth.com/anxiety/8-common-myths-about-ocd.aspx.


[10] McKay, Dean, Jonathan Abramowitz, and Eric Storch. “Ineffective and Potentially Harmful Psychological Interventions for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” International OCD Foundation. IOCDF. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/ineffective-and-potentially-harmful-psychological-interventions-for-obsessive-compulsive-disorder/.


Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash


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