9 Things You Should Know About OCD

I have an illness that is hard to explain. This enigmatic disorder is known as obsessive compulsive disorder, sometimes trivially converted into an adjective  – “I’m like, so OCD” – or found in punchy headlines like “23 Things That Will Drive Your OCD Insane.” There are a lot of misconceptions about OCD, and ever since I was diagnosed in high school, I have been trying to find the right words to help the people around me understand how it affects my life.

In my first few years of high school, I would try to explain my OCD to my parents, friends, and teachers. Many of them understood OCD exclusively as an extreme form of germaphobia, based on the limited representation that can be found in the media. It was easy for others to grasp the parts of my disorder which included having to wash my hands or avoid sharing food for fear of germs, but it was difficult to understand the more disquieting aspects of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, like violent intrusive thoughts and relentless compulsions.

In an attempt to help others understand more about the disorder that I, along with millions of others, live with everyday, I have compiled a list of everything you need to know about obsessive compulsive disorder.

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OCD is more common than you think

In Canada, it has been found that 1% - 2% of the population will experience OCD, and the stats are similar in the US and the UK. Though the disorder is often overlooked in mental health conversations, and is underrepresented in the media, it affects a large number of people across the world.

There are 2 main components of OCD

The two main components of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts which trigger distressing feelings. For instance, someone with OCD may obsess over the fear of contamination, causing them to have intrusive thoughts about contracting disease or being poisoned. A few examples of types of obsessions are religion-based obsessions (obsessive concern with doing the “right thing” or pleasing God), and harm-based obsessions (obsessive fear of harming oneself or others). Compulsions, on the other hand, are repetitive tendencies which aim to counteract obsessions. Compulsions may involve cleaning, checking, or counting, among other repetitive behaviours.

Everyone has obsessions and compulsions, but not everyone has OCD

Research has shown that most people experience intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviours. However, what differentiates these thoughts and behaviours from those of someone with diagnosable OCD is the distress that they cause. Obsessive compulsive behaviours can be defined as a disorder when they get in the way of one’s ability to function day-to-day.

OCD does not always involve germs or cleanliness

People often associate OCD with an extreme fear of germs due to the media depictions of the disorder,  such as Emma Pillsbury from Glee or Melvin Udall from As Good as it Gets. Though germs or cleanliness can be be a big part of OCD for some people, not everyone with OCD experiences this aspect. Obsessions and compulsions can revolve around a variety of different fears and anxieties, and hygiene isn’t always one of them. In fact, someone with OCD could be the messiest person you know!

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Intrusive thoughts can be violent or disturbing

Unwanted thoughts or images, known as “intrusive thoughts,” are a large aspect of OCD. These thoughts can be quite distressing, and can revolve around violent or disturbing themes. People with OCD might have intrusive thoughts involving sex, self-harm, or violent behaviour.

Intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of a person’s true desires

Intrusive thoughts are, by definition, unwanted. They are not a reflection of a person’s true desires, but rather, they are usually a manifestation of one’s deepest fears. For instance, if someone experiences intrusive thoughts about hurting a loved one, it is not because they want to, but because they fear for the safety of the other person.

OCD can have triggers

Many people with OCD have specific things that can trigger their compulsions or intrusive thoughts. This could be something as universal as stress, or something more specific, such as darkness or large crowds. Recognizing one’s triggers or cues can, for many people, be a helpful step in combating obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviours.

OCD can be treated, but not cured

There is no “cure” for OCD. However, there are several ways to treat the disorder. The most common form of treatment for OCD is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This is a type of treatment has two main components: cognitive therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention. This form of therapy involves controlled exposure to obsessional cues which leads to a decrease in feelings of anxiety and distress. People with OCD can also take medication to treat the disorder. Many people with OCD have found success with a combination of both CBT and medication. With the right form of treatment, those with OCD can live a functional life.

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Everyone’s OCD is different

OCD is a complicated disorder, and it can manifest in many different ways. It is important to understand that not everyone with OCD has the same experiences. If you know someone with OCD, the best way to support them and to understand what they are going through is to ask questions. If they are comfortable talking about their OCD, ask about how it affects them and how you can be supportive.

Hopefully, thanks to this list, you now know a little more about OCD than you did before. OCD is a complicated and misunderstood disorder and it is important to keep talking about it. For more information about OCD, you can check out great online resources like intrusivethoughts.org or OCD Canada.

If you are struggling with OCD, know that you are not alone.