Myths About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Despite being one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders and present in as many as one in 50 U.S. adults, obsessive-compulsive disorder tends to occupy a gray area in the public consciousness that’s marked more by myth than truth. Chalk it up to stereotypes or characters like Jack Nicholson’s in As Good as It Gets, but many people hold to a system of misconceptions about OCD that simply aren’t true. Those with the disease or who have a loved one with it know the truth, but for everyone else, here are the myths people believe and the truth behind them.

  1. Any neat freak has OCD: OCD is a mental disorder. Period. It’s an anxiety disorder that leads those who have it to perform highly specific rituals as calming methods to fight they crushing anxiety. Being neat and orderly, even to the point of rigidity, doesn’t mean someone has OCD; it just means they like things clean. Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder who keeps their house spotless isn’t doing it to look nice, but because they’re overwhelmed by anxiety when something is amiss. It’s a big difference, and one that’s often misunderstood.
  2. OCD is just about cleaning: This one comes on the heels of the previous one, as many people assume that those with OCD are devoted to cleaning house. Yet that’s just one symptom, and far from the only way the disease manifests itself. Per the DSM-IV, compulsions can be a variey of things that the person in question does to reduce stress or prevent “some dreaded situation or event,” and these can include everything from praying to counting silently to repeating words. Yes, cleaning things can be one of these compulsions, but it’s not the only one.
  3. People with OCD don’t have any willpower: This is a prevalent but insidious myth that paints people with obsessive-compulsive disorder as merely suffering from some kind of emotional weakness, as if their obsessions are something they could silence permanently if they’d only focus hard enough. As much as even people with OCD might wish this to be true, it isn’t. The disease is a mental one, and though many researchers are still targeting the specific cause, studies have shown that people with OCD have different patterns of brain activity than those without it.
  4. People with OCD focus on one person or idea: People with OCD aren’t limited to the thoughts that can consume them, and in many cases these aren’t about a specific person or place. Rather, these intrusive and unwanted thoughts are often about horrible, unreal situations defined by violence or irrationality, such as the thought of injuring their child. People with PCD recognize the irrationality of these thoughts, but that doesn’t make them less real, or painful, or hard to talk about even with professionals. Obsessions can be incredibly varied.
  5. OCD can be cured, and easily: There is no cure for obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, it is possible for many patients with OCD to gain control of the disease and enjoy a stellar prognosis. This requires, as you might expect, a ton of work. People with OCD typically need a combination of medicine and behavioral therapy in order to begin the process of modulating their thoughts to the point where they can successfully label and control them.
  6. OCD affects more women than men: Some have observed that more women than men tend to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, but those observations are anecdotal. In reality, the disease affects men and women in almost equal measure. Why the discrepancy between myth and truth? Because men typically have a harder time expressing deeper emotions than women do, and that reluctance is multiplied when some were asked to discuss the intrusive and often very dark thoughts that defined their obsessions.
  7. OCD comes from stress: Again, if only wishing made it so, then people struggling with OCD could just take a few days off work and get back to “normal.” But that just isn’t the case. If you take away nothing else, remember than obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental one, not something brought on by a few hectic weeks at the office. It is true that major stressors can trigger symptoms, especially in traumatic situations like the death of a loved one. But the existence of stress can only ever exaggerate the OCD, not create it.
  8. People with OCD were raised poorly: Parenting has nothing to do with contracting obsessive-compulsive disorder. Raising a child to follow certain rules does not cause the disorder. However, as with the myth about stress, the truth is complex. Parenting styles don’t cause OCD, but they can exacerbate it when parents go too far in accomodating OCD behaviors in a well-meaning but fruitless attempt to manage the child’s stress level. This can lead to a strengthening of symptoms and behaviors and make the disease that much harder to treat. Yet criticism and hostility can also have negative consequences. The best result is to work with medical professionals to begin treating and structuring the child’s life.
  9. OCD is unchanging: This is an easy mistake to make: the public depictions of OCD are of people ritualistically cleaning dishes with no hope of an end in sight. Yet this is a total myth. As with many disorders, the earlier OCD is diagnosed, the better the person will be able to respond to treatment. Even if it’s not caught until late adolescence or adulthood, treatment and medication can do wonders to help people with OCD reduce the frequency and pwoer of the intrusive thoughts that are robbing them of mental freedom. With the right care, people with OCD can make speedy, giant strides toward a better life.
  10. Any desire to collect or organize can be linked to OCD: This myth gets spread by people who confuse the mental disorder of OCD with the far more common trait of orderliness or passion for collecting. For instance, a child might become heavily involved in collecting baseball cards or memorizing player statistics; this isn’t OCD, just the manifestation of a burgeoning interest. OCD doesn’t encompass behavior built around collecting or memorization, so don’t let these normal (if devoted) traits lead you to an inaccurate diagnosis. As with all else, proceed with an open mind.

Filed under: Healthcare Administration

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