The Myths Surrounding OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)


Do you wonder whether you may suffer from undiagnosed OCD? This confusion seems to be one of the factors that lead to people with OCD not being properly diagnosed and not seeking treatment. Here are some of the common misconceptions of OCD that contribute to the confusion about this often misunderstood disorder:

1. The difference between the everyday use of the word “obsessed” and its meaning in the context of the disorder.

When someone says they are depressed, we tend to know what they mean, even though that person may be simply feeling sad. It’s nothing like that with the word “obsessed.” When we say we are obsessed with a new friend, or a podcast, or our new shoes, we mean that we can’t get enough of it; we love it, and get a lot of pleasure from thinking about it. This feeling couldn’t be more different for a person who experiences obsessions as part of their OCD. Those obsessions are totally unwanted and disturbing intrusive thoughts, images, or urges. The key being unwanted. Those thoughts or images cause OCD sufferers large amounts of suffering, anxiety, disgust, and often shame. The everyday use of the word “obsession” is actually the opposite of what people with OCD experience.

2. The stereotypical image of people with OCD as clean freaks or neat freaks.

Not all people who wash or clean excessively suffer from OCD, and not all people with OCD feel the urge to clean. So how can you tell? To answer this question, think about the reasons you wash or clean, and how you feel after you are done washing or cleaning. If you take pride in being an organized and “neat” person and feel a sense of accomplishment after you are done, then chances are you don’t suffer from OCD. If, on the other hand, your urge to clean is a response to a strong feeling of fear, distress, or disgust and you feel that you must to do it or you won’t be able to go on with your day, then it may be a sign of OCD.

3. The idea that a messy person can’t have OCD.

As discussed above, a common misconception is that a person with OCD is a super-organized, perfectionistic “clean freak” who is preoccupied with making sure that everything is sterile and in its place. Even though a fear of contamination is a common obsession in OCD, there are other obsessions including:

  • Fear of harming yourself or others, or being responsible for causing a horrible event or making a dreadful mistake.

  • Unwanted sexual thoughts.

  • Religious and moral obsessions. Fear of offending God, being a “sinner,” or being an evil person.

  • “Just Right” obsessions, or awareness of an object or behavior that is not symmetrical, not “right” or not “correct”.

  • Hyper-awareness obsessions. The fear of being unable to stop paying attention to blinking, swallowing, breathing, body positioning, physical sensations, memories, or thoughts.

OCD “attacks” anything that a person values very highly, such as their morality, religious beliefs, and their health. You may have one (or more) type of obsession, but not have the others. This means that you may be preoccupied with intrusive thoughts that you are likely to accidentally stab a family member with a knife, or that you were involved in a hit and run accident and drove away without noticing, while having absolutely no concerns about cleanliness.

4. The fact that many of the thoughts that OCD sufferers experience as obsessions are the same as occasional thoughts that people without OCD may have.

Listen to this episode of the NPR “Invisibilia” podcast to hear examples of some of the intrusive “harming” thoughts that can show up in our minds.

Examples of intrusive thoughts are:

  • “What if I drop my newborn baby down the stairs?”

  • “If I come close to the railing of the balcony, I may jump.”

  • “What If I swerve the steering wheel onto the oncoming traffic?”

We may all have those type of fleeting thoughts on occasion, but what is the difference between people with and without OCD in terms of those thoughts? To put it simply, if a person without OCD experiences a thought like that, they will probably think about how weird the thought was and forget about it pretty quickly. When a person with OCD has the same thought, they will likely become extremely concerned, wondering why they would have a thought like that. They’ll think, “Oh no! What does that mean? Does it mean that I may hurt my baby? I’m dangerous! I shouldn’t be left alone with the baby.” They may then do things to prevent the event from happening, such as avoiding being left alone with the baby or stay away from the stairs. They may engage in all kinds of rituals that calm them down and prevent anything bad from happening. It’s the interpretation given to the thought that matters. If those thoughts cause you extreme anxiety and you start engaging with the thoughts and taking various precautions which takes a lot of your time and energy, then you may have OCD.

5. If a person doesn’t have any rituals, they don’t have OCD.

The absence of visible rituals doesn't mean the person does not have OCD. Often, people may have frequent intrusive disturbing thoughts that cause anxiety and they cope with their distress internally by:

  • Avoiding places or situations that may lead to anxiety. You may avoid knives (so you don’t stab), heights (so you don’t jump), being alone with kids (so you don’t harm them), etc.

  • Mentally reviewing in an attempt to be certain that no harm was caused by one of your actions.

  • Counting.

  • Thinking a positive thought in order to “neutralize” or “cancel out” a bad thought.

6. If a person with OCD can be convinced that those rituals are just silly, they will stop doing them.

Most people with OCD recognize that the rituals (visible or mental) do not make much sense. They would like nothing more than to free themselves from being consumed by their obsessive thoughts and compulsions. Telling them to just stop is not going to work. They need a specialized treatment program called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) that is administered by a skilled professional.

If you think that you (or somebody you know) may have OCD, it is important to get properly diagnosed by a professional. Please don’t allow the above misconceptions stand in your way.

If you are in the Lancaster, Pa area, feel free to contact me at (717) 288-5064 / gregghammond@restoringbalancelancaster.com and schedule an appointment today.