Updated: Jun 13
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), is a mental health condition that affects 2 to 3 million adults in the United States alone. There are many misconceptions about this condition perpetuated by false media representation and the normalization of the phrase in mainstream speech. There is so much to OCD and a person is so much more than their OCD; thus, this article will address some of the many commonly held myths regarding this condition as well as highlight additional resources and support.
Myth #1: “We are all a little OCD at times.”
The phrase “OCD” has become so ingrained in mainstream vocabulary that oftentimes, people will use this to refer to their typical patterns of behaviors or personality traits. For example, because being clean and neat is associated with the disorder, many of us have heard someone who is characteristically neat say “I’m so OCD,” while organizing their desk, straightening a picture, or cleaning a room. This illustrates how the idea of “being OCD” can become misinterpreted as a typical character trait or healthy behavior that a person can choose to control.
Fact: OCD is not a personality or a character trait. While many people can have obsessive or compulsive traits, people with obsessive-compulsive disorders cannot simply “turn it off.”
OCD is a mental health condition that affects about 2 to 3 million adults, and half a million youth, in the US alone. OCD occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings such as fear, anxiety, disgust, uncertainty, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that feels “just right.” Compulsions are behaviors or mental rituals an individual feels driven to engage in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions, prevent negative consequences, and/or decrease feelings of distress. For a diagnosis, this cycle of obsessions and compulsions must be so extreme that it consumes a lot of time (more than an hour every day), causes intense distress, or gets in the way of daily functioning and important activities.
Myth #2: OCD is all about neatness, cleanliness, and germs.
Fact: OCD is a heterogeneous disorder. That is, the obsessions and compulsions associated with OCD manifest differently in different people and even across time. Thus, obsessions around cleanliness, organization, and germs are just three possible categories of OCD.
Common obsessions in OCD include contamination obsessions, harm obsessions, sexual obsessions, moral/religious obsessions (scrupulosity), as well as symmetry and order obsessions.
Common compulsions in OCD include counting compulsions, repetition compulsions, checking, compulsive handwashing/cleaning, ordering, or arranging things in the “right” way, and hoarding.
Myth #3: People with OCD are “stressed” or simply “neurotic.” They just need to relax!
The obsessions and compulsions that an individual with OCD experiences might seem absurd and illogical to healthy on-lookers. Therefore, the solution seems simple: “Just stop washing your hands;” “Calm down, nothing bad will happen; “Why can’t you throw away all this useless junk?;” “Be realistic!”
Fact: OCD is a mental health condition.
In most cases, people with OCD realize that their thoughts are illogical and that their rituals are time-consuming and absurd. However, for them, these obsessions and compulsions are experienced as uncontrollable. They are unable to “turn them off,” so being told to “stop worrying” or “calm down” is not productive.
Myth #4: It is obvious to spot someone with OCD.
Because of the way the media portrays those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (e.g., Monk, The Big Bang Theory, As Good as it Gets, and The Aviator), people assume that they can tell right away if someone has OCD. For example, you can tell if a person has OCD if they are tapping repetitively, always cleaning, excessively washing their hands, continuously checking objects, avoiding stepping on cracks, rearranging objects, and becoming increasingly distressed if any of their ritualistic behaviors become interrupted.
Fact: People with OCD are often able to hide or suppress their symptoms in public, especially if they’re receiving proper treatment.
Myth 5: There is no treatment for OCD.
Fact: With the help of a mental health professional (psychiatrists, psychologists, and/or mental health counselors), individuals with OCD can receive treatment to help them effectively manage thier symptoms and live satisfying lives.
Effective treatments for OCD include Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), and/or medications (SSRIs).
OCD Awareness Week
October 9-15th in OCD Awareness Week, an international effort that takes place during the second week in October each year to raise awareness and understanding about obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, to help more people to get timely access to appropriate and effective treatment. For more information about OCD, OCD Awareness Week, and related events, check out:
By: Brianna Greenberg
Mental Health Counseling Intern
International OCD Foundation. (2022, October). International OCD Awareness Week: October
9-15, 2022. IOCDF.
Ryback, R. (2016). 4 Myths about OCD. Psychology Today.
International OCD Foundation. (2017, October, 3). Help Separate OCD Facts from Myths.