Considering how relatively-prevalent we now know OCD is, it is still surprisingly misunderstood. With the help of pop culture, the widespread characterization of OCD often sounds more like a punchline.

“People with OCD just have some organizational and cleaning preferences, right?”

“Anybody can be a little OCD from time to time, right?”

“OCD sounds annoying, but it isn’t very serious, right?”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Let’s take a look at some of the most pervasive misconceptions alongside the facts about obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Sometimes I tell my friends and coworkers when they’re being ‘so OCD.’”

Fact: OCD is not an adjective.

You never hear someone say, “You’re being so schizophrenic right now” when their friend shares a bizarre thought that pops into their head. You don’t hear someone say, “I’m being so anorexic about this” when they decline having seconds of dinner. And yet, OCD has become a misused part of the collective vernacular.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is, in reality, a serious and chronic (and often-debilitating) disorder. It is marked by unwanted and disturbing intrusive thoughts (obsessions), and counterproductive behaviors (compulsions) in an attempt to mitigate the unwanted thoughts.

“When unwanted thoughts come, just try to move on and not think about it.”

Fact: OCD isn’t a quirk that can be overcome by ‘mind over matter.’ It’s a disorder.

The brains of individuals with OCD are structurally and functionally different. A neurological glitch essentially holds OCD sufferers’ brains captive in a thought loop, and makes it extremely difficult to escape it.

When we see anal-retentive tendencies or quirky behaviors, we’re not seeing the embodiment of OCD. The intrusive thoughts and compulsions that characterize OCD can be severe and all-consuming, interfering with everyday life. The stigmatized nature of some of the most common types of OCD thoughts can also cause anxiety, depression, and can push OCD sufferers into a spiral of shame and secrecy.

“So people who actually have OCD must know that they have it from the first time they start experiencing symptoms.”

Fact: People with OCD often live with their symptoms for many years before being diagnosed.

It isn’t at all unusual to hear someone tell how they spent years – even decades – struggling with their symptoms before finally being diagnosed with OCD. For starters, the intrusive thoughts that are the hallmark of OCD can be difficult to share, even with a therapist. Therefore, many OCD sufferers keep the specifics to themselves out of this fear of getting a negative response.

Fear isn’t the only barrier to awareness of one’s own OCD. Some symptoms of OCD sound so similar to that of other mental health disorders – Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Depression, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder… and the list goes on and on. It’s understandable that some of the most stigmatized intrusive thoughts are often first described to a mental healthcare professional in a more generalized way, and this can also contribute to misdiagnosis.

Additionally, people may not realize that OCD is actually underlying or comorbid with another disorder. There are also commonly-overlooked symptoms of OCD such as difficulty concentrating, reassurance-seeking, avoidance and being chronically late.

“I’d definitely be able to tell if someone has it… it sounds like it would look obvious in their behavior.” 

Fact: OCD does not always involve visible or obvious compulsions.

OCD isn’t as simple as ‘x obsession = y compulsion.’ OCD takes on many forms in terms of obsessions and compulsions and combinations of the two.

Compulsions can happen inside someone’s head, or in a way that is so discrete as to rarely, if ever, be noticed by anyone other than the one suffering from OCD. For some, internet research to seek certainty regarding their intrusive thoughts is the compulsive behavior. For others, asking those closest to them for reassurance is the compulsion. In cases of ‘Pure O,’ strings of mental analyses serves as compulsions – happening solely within the confines of their own minds.

“At least someone with OCD could get treatment and get a handle on whatever type of OCD they have.”

Fact: OCD often morphs over time, and new subtypes can be triggered by anything.

While there is hope in the treatment and management of OCD, there is no sure-fire cure. OCD may lie dormant for a time, but any event – big or small – can trigger OCD in any form.

Maybe someone gets back into a relationship, and their Relationship OCD returns. Perhaps the birth of someone’s first child triggers a whole new set of OCD symptoms that the person never struggled with until they became a new parent. 

Age, culture and life experiences are all factors that contribute to the potentially-shifting nature of OCD. It’s one of the major reasons that having ongoing support, and working on OCD management skills, is so important for someone in OCD recovery.

“Just talk to someone so they can reassure you that your thoughts aren’t true.”

Fact: Offering reassurance to someone with OCD can seem temporarily helpful, but in reality, it’s counterproductive.

One of the most difficult things for friends and family who want to support their loved ones with OCD, is to understand what reassurance-seeking is, how it presents in someone’s behavior, and why it is so important to respond in a way that seems counterintuitive to them.

When someone with OCD talks about their thoughts, or even asks directly for reassurance or confirmation of whether their thoughts are true, it’s natural to want to respond in a reassuring way.

“Of course you would never do that…”

“That’s not going to happen…”

It’ll turn out completely differently than what you’re worried about…

This type of reassuring message is totally counterproductive to OCD management. It may temporarily relieve someone’s anxiety, but the intrusive thoughts return with a vengeance – feeding off the message of certainty that reassurance provides. OCD tells the brain to question whether the reassurance is true or false.

How can I be sure I’d never do that?

But what if that actually does happen?

How do I know it won’t turn out exactly the way I’m worried about?

Alternatively, friends and family can support their loved ones with OCD by encouraging them to embrace the uncertainty. The acknowledgement that their fears may or may not be realized, while counterintuitive and potentially frustrating to hear, is the best possible response. It also doesn’t hurt to remind them that you love and support them.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder deserves to be spoken about accurately and respectfully. The more we can shift perceptions towards a ‘true north’ that paints a real picture of OCD, the more good we can do for the broader OCD and mental health community.

And the more we can reach those still suffering alone.

Looking for a safe space to discuss your thoughts with peers who understand?

To share your experience without guilt, shame or fear, browse our safe and confidential OCDPeers groups here.

We’d love to hear your story!

The OCD community needs brave voices who are willing to share their experience. If you’re interested in sharing your OCD story, contact us here.