Sophie had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since she was a young child, but it wasn’t until she turned 18 that it became severe. That’s not uncommon: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that one-third of the 2.2 million American adults with OCD experienced symptoms in childhood. But that didn’t make it any easier for her to understand what was happening inside her mind.
Many people don’t fully understand what OCD is all about. OCD misconceptions abound. Popular culture often depicts people with the disorder counting the number of steps they take or washing their hands obsessively. But that’s a superficial gloss on a complex mental health issue. Learning more about OCD provides a clearer picture about what it means to live with this disorder—and it also can provide solutions to make life more manageable. Here are some OCD myths and the truths that debunk them, with insight provided by clinician Dr. Roxanna Rosen. As you’ll see, it’s important to be knowledgeable about OCD, as well as other mental health conditions.
People with OCD are just neurotic and need to relax.
We all have intrusive thoughts or images that can derail us if we don’t step back and take a breath. But OCD goes deeper. Those intrusive thoughts take on immense importance and become irrational to the point of obsession, Rosen said. Those obsessive thoughts drive people towards compulsions as a way to cope. These compulsions often take the form of ritualistic behaviors.
OCD is just about numbers.
Yes, some people with OCD may switch a light on and off a certain number of times or wash their hands for three minutes. However, OCD looks different with everyone, and a lot of it depends on what the obsessive thought is. Someone worried about germs would fixate on washing their hands, but someone worried about particular colors may eliminate them from their wardrobe or surroundings. Sophie remembers at one point in her life, she would spend hours moving a notebook or cup around a table to place it in just the right spot. Rosen says this is a “not just right experience” of OCD.
OCD is just a collection of odd tics or habits.
You may think OCD is easy to spot, but that’s not always the case. Some people sublimate their compulsive behavior when they are around others and only do their rituals in private. For others, their rituals are mental and don’t manifest visually. Some people may pray compulsively if they are worried about a loved one or if they have a fear of God’s punishment. Others who are worried something bad might happen may mentally run through their upcoming schedule for the day over and over again in an effort to avoid harm or danger.
Kids are too young to have OCD.
This isn’t true, as we can see from Sophie’s situation. There’s even a term for it: pediatric OCD. Research estimates that 1 in 200 youths in America have this type of childhood OCD—and that’s roughly the same number of kids who have diabetes.
There’s no way to treat OCD.
This common misconception about OCD is perhaps the most damaging. While there is no cure, OCD is definitely manageable and treatable. Individual therapy and support groups are valuable tools, as are antidepressants and other medications. One of the most effective treatment methods is Exposure and Response Prevention, Rosen said. This is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that is particularly useful for OCD. Patients expose themselves to the obsessive thought or image, but instead of partaking in the compulsive behavior, they allow the obsessive thought to run its course. As patients see that the fear they’ve been fixated on doesn’t come to fruition, their anxiety decreases, and the obsession starts to lose its power. A therapist can train patients in Exposure and Response Prevention so that they eventually can do it on their own.
Sophie is living proof that untreatable OCD is a myth. After several years on and off with severe OCD, at age 24 she had a breakdown that required hospitalization. In the year that followed, she adopted a unique form of Exposure and Response Prevention. She took her behavioral cues from her cat, and as she observed her cat unworried by the things Sophie obsessed over, she began to release her anxiety. She says she now has her OCD under control and strives to live fully to make up for the years she lost to the disorder.
OCD myths shouldn’t govern how we look at this mental health condition or how people live with it. It is a serious issue that deserves compassion and attention. With patience and courage, OCD can be managed for a greater quality of life.
If you’re looking for the real story of life with OCD, visit TAG. This streaming service focuses on mental health and offers videos of real people sharing their journeys as well as clinicians providing a professional perspective. TAG is an innovative tool in therapy and psychoeducation and a safe space that removes any stigmas surrounding mental illness. Visit TAG to learn more about Sophie and her story with OCD.