People often use the term ‘OCD’ to label someone who loves to clean or keep things orderly. The reality of this mental illness is much less about being hyper-organized and clean, and more about having intrusive thoughts and obsessive compulsions that take over a sufferer’s life.
Learning about OCD is important for everyone, whether you want to support someone who has it, know how to spot the signs, or just understand the disorder a little better. In this article, we’ll aim to dispel some myths about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and explain the underlying cause of compulsive behavior.
Myths about OCD
It’s important to understand that behavior like this stems from obsessive, intrusive fears. These thoughts persist day in, day out and, as a result, can cause depression, panic attacks, agoraphobia and further mental health issues.
Washing and cleaning may be a sign of OCD, but it is intrusive thoughts and fear of contamination, resulting in ritualistic behavior, that is the integral element behind this aspect of the disorder. Simply being clean does not mean that someone is suffering from OCD.
Here is a common ‘cycle’ of OCD, to help you understand how a sufferer comes to enact compulsive behavior.
- Intrusive thoughts occur
- The sufferer feels intense fear because of these thoughts
- The sufferer begins performing compulsive behaviors, believing that this will stop their fear from becoming reality
- Temporary relief
On completion of this cycle, it begins again, occurring several times per day. OCD is often only noticed when a sufferer’s rituals become noticeable to others, because they happen frequently and last for excessive amounts of time (e.g. when a person cleans their bathroom for hours every day.)
It is a myth that OCD is untreatable. CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), a talking therapy, is found to be very effective in helping people to stop enacting their compulsive rituals and find alternative ways of thinking when intrusive thoughts arise.
It is also a myth that cleaning is the ONLY form of OCD. In the next section, we’ll explain some more common obsessions and fears held by sufferers.
Truths about OCD
Intrusive thoughts are, by most accounts, the most common defining symptom of the disorder – not ‘washing hands’ or ‘obsessive checking’. They are highly distressing, disturbing, and can lead to the sufferer manifesting the kinds of obsessive behaviors that have become stereotypical of the disorder.
It’s true that many people don’t know they have OCD, and even some doctors may not realize. It’s common that sufferers’ depression or anxiety that result from their intrusive thoughts are diagnosed first, rather than the underlying cause of their depression.
Involuntary intrusive thoughts plague the sufferer and can appear as images, unpleasant ideas, and disastrous fears, among other things. They are difficult, if not impossible to ignore. They seem to ‘pop out of nowhere’, which is very upsetting to the sufferer who can’t understand why they are thinking this way. Many report that they can’t go about their daily business without an unwelcome thought popping into their head, completely disrupting their life.
Compulsive behavior usually occurs as a kind of ‘remedy’ to pervasive thoughts. A good example of this is the obsessive idea that your house will burn down, leading to compulsive checking of the oven, unplugging electricals, even refusing to leave the house in case a fire starts.
This also shows that while fear of contamination is a common intrusive thought, it’s not always the cause of OCD – there are many other obsessions that may take hold of a sufferer.
Common obsessions include:
- Germs and contamination
- Death (themselves or loved ones)
- Causing harm or offence to someone
- Superstitious, religious, or moral thoughts (feeling that if you don’t adhere to these ideas then something bad will happen.)
Sometimes, the rituals performed by sufferers to alleviate their thoughts can appear completely unrelated to the obsession. For example, a sufferer may feel compelled to turn a light off and on several times, convinced that this will prevent imagined harm to their loved ones.
An OCD sufferer will most likely have to control their illness for a lifetime, so long-term therapy is recommended. Unfortunately, medications are found to be ineffective for one in three people with OCD.
However, as we said previously, CBT is highly beneficial. A combination of CBT and psychotherapy is the best method of ensuring sufferers can live a ‘normal’ life – through learning alternative thought processes and keeping their compulsions in check.