Millions of American adults suffer with symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Even so, there remain a number of myths and misunderstandings about this condition. For example, many people believe that individuals with OCD are neat and tidy. This, however, is not necessarily true. Although some people with OCD have a compulsive need for items to be in an certain order, many other people with OCD are hoarders, with piles and piles of items they can’t bear to throw away getting in the way of their living space. These examples show that there is no single way to categorize individuals with OCD. As with most mental illnesses, OCD is individual. There are certain characteristics of the disorder that are similar, however, each person may have their own set of unique symptoms.
Understanding the difference between myths and facts can help you better cope with symptoms or help a friend or family member suffering from this disorder.
Myth: OCD is an excuse for people that are anal or picky.
Fact: People with OCD have impairment in their life. The diagnostic criteria, as stated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), specifies that the obsessions and compulsions take up at least one hour each day, that symptoms interfere with normal daily activities (work, social activities, relationships) and cause serious distress.
There are many people who are fussy or picky about their environment. Imagine the co-worker who clears his desk each evening or the friend whose house is always in perfect order. These people are fussy, maybe even anal in their need for order, but their actions would not necessarily warrant a diagnosis of OCD, unless their need for order interferes with their ability to complete other tasks. If your co-worker spent an inordinate amount of time straightening up his desk each day, delaying going home for an hour or more, missing dinner at home or skipping meeting friends after work, in order to make sure each paper, each paper clip, each pen was positioned in a certain way, OCD could be present (but only a medical professional can evaluate for OCD).
Myth: OCD is caused by poor upbringing, family dysfunction or low self-esteem.
Fact: OCD is a psychiatric disorder and the causes are not entirely understood. However, it is thought to be associated with a chemical imbalance in the brain. Researchers speculate that levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin is at least partly responsible for OCD.
Myth: OCD is caused by stress.
Fact: It is a common misconception that individuals with OCD are just “uptight” and need to relax. OCD is a psychiatric disorder and the symptoms can be debilitating. As stated above, it is thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Stress has been found to be a trigger for OCD symptoms in some people. Stress can also exacerbate symptoms of OCD.
Myth: There is no treatment for OCD, people just need to deal with the symptoms.
Fact: OCD is a treatable condition. Many people find relief from symptoms through a combination of medication, therapy and self-help strategies. Unfortunately, myths such as the ones we are discussing on this page stop individuals from seeking treatment. It is estimated that only 10 percent of people with OCD symptoms actually seek treatment.
Myth: OCD is rare.
Fact: Statistics indicate that over 3 million people in the United States have OCD. Approximately 2.3 percent of all individuals between the ages of 18 and 54 have at least some symptoms of OCD.
Myth: Children cannot have OCD.
Fact: Symptoms of OCD generally appear between the ages of 6 and 15 in males and between the ages of 20 and 29 for females. However, symptoms of OCD have been reported and recognized in children as young as 1 to 2 years of age. Myth: Everyone with OCD has anxiety about germs.
Fact: While the fear of germs is a common symptom of OCD, everyone experiences the illness differently. Some people may have different symptoms, such as the need to mentally count before speaking or having to walk in and out of a room a certain number of times before entering. Symptoms vary and each person needs to evaluated based on their specific symptoms.
Myth: Many people with OCD only have obsessions but don’t feel the need to act out compulsions.
Fact: Most people with OCD have both obsessions and compulsions. Many feel embarrassed or ashamed of their compulsions and go to great lengths to hide their need to perform certain actions. Others have mental compulsions, such as counting or repeating a word over and over. These types of compulsions can remain hidden and can give the illusion that the person does not have compulsions.
Myth: Strong religious beliefs cause OCD.
Fact: As explained in prvious myths OCD is thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It can sometimes run in families. Rituals are a part of many religions and some people follow strict personal beliefs in following those rituals and may feel uncomfortable if the rituals are not completed. This , however is different than OCD. The religious beliefs do not cause OCD and those with strict religious rituals are not at a higher risk of developing OCD.
“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Myths”, Date Unknown, Author Unknown, OCDCenter.org
"Some OCD Facts and Figures", 2003, Author Unknown, Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
"When Unwanted Thoughts Take Over: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder", Date Unknown, Author Unknown, National Institute of Mental Health
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.