7 Common Misconceptions About OCD

Tony Shalhoub may be a national treasure, and TV shows like ‘Monk’ might be entertaining, but they can also contribute to misconceptions about obsessive compulsive disorder.
'OCD' and 'Type A' aren't synonyms.
'OCD' and 'Type A' aren't synonyms. / Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

If your boss insists on organizing their desk in a very specific way or your roommate is meticulous about scrubbing the kitchen until it shines, you may have described them as being “so OCD.” But OCD isn’t really an adjective you should casually lob at someone. Those three letters aren’t short-hand for “extremely neat” or “very particular about how things are done.” 

We’ll review some more common myths about OCD in the list below, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

Misconception: OCD is a character trait.

The initialism stands for “obsessive compulsive disorder”—and it’s a mental health condition, not a quirky character trait. There are several ways obsessive compulsive disorder is different than having a Type A personality. A person with OCD becomes stuck in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are often repetitive. They can be intense and alarming. Compulsions are the behaviors a person does to drive the obsessions away. 

As Dr. Elizabeth McIngvale, the founder of a non-profit organization for people with OCD, told Baylor College of Medicine in 2017, “with OCD, it is something that individuals don’t enjoy—there’s nothing they like about it, they are doing it because they feel like they have to in order to get rid of the intrusive thought or fear. It is debilitating and draining and not something that makes the individual feel better and more productive when they are done.” 

Joking about OCD, or using it as an adjective willy-nilly, can be painful and stigmatizing for those who actually have the disorder. So, reconsider your words the next time you want to describe someone as being “so OCD” just because they do something in a particular way.

Misconception: There’s just one type of OCD. 

Man having unwanted thoughts and grimacing at a wooden table
Unwanted, intrusive thoughts can lead to compulsive actions to prevent more thoughts from occurring. / Aleli Dezmen/Image Bank/Getty Images

Often, people assume those with OCD are clean freaks or germaphobes. You may imagine someone vigorously scrubbing their hands or mopping their floors until they shine. Or maybe you picture OCD as someone organizing their closet by color or ensuring their pens and pencils are always perfectly lined up. 

But not everyone with OCD has the same obsessions or compulsions. “It’s the processes that are at the root of OCD that appear to be similar, despite the nearly infinite ways that OCD might manifest itself,” Larry Needleman, a psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told SELF in 2016.

People with OCD have unwanted intrusive thoughts about a variety of things, such as religion, sex, self-harm, or the harm of a loved one. This in turn can lead to a variety of compulsions meant to combat the obsessions. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people’s compulsions will generally manifest as specific rituals. Sure, some with obsessions related to contamination may wash their hands a lot or keep a super clean house, but others may repeat certain behaviors based on their individual triggers that may not make sense to onlookers, like sitting down and standing up a set number of times; avoiding certain places or objects; or getting dressed in a set, specific way. Hoarding, though it’s now classified as its own disorder, can also be a symptom of OCD—so no, not everyone with the condition keeps their spaces spick and span.

Some people may not have visible compulsions at all. If their rituals mainly take place internally, such as counting to a certain number or doing a mental body scan, they’re sometimes described as having “purely obsessional OCD.” A lot of experts have a problem with that label, though, as it seems to suggest that mental compulsions are somehow less real than ones we can see. The point remains that OCD can present itself in very different ways.

Misconception: People with OCD obsess over the same thing.

Some people with OCD may get stuck in the same cycle of obsessions and compulsions, where they focus on the same thing and perform the same rituals. But others may have a variety of triggers, or their obsessions may change over time. As Owen Kelly, a clinical psychologist, explained for Very Well Mind in 2020, a person’s original obsessions can shift. The change likely won’t be drastic: It would be uncommon for someone with intrusive thoughts about cleanliness to suddenly develop sexual obsessions and compulsions. But someone with obsessions related to food-borne illnesses could later develop intrusive thoughts about other contamination-related issues. 

And a person’s symptoms may ebb and flow over time, as things like stress and even a lack of sleep are known to worsen OCD.

Misconception: Anyone with intrusive thoughts has OCD. 

woman facing away and standing on a train platform
A person with OCD may take their intrusive thoughts seriously. / FG Trade/E+/Getty Images

It’s likely that you yourself have experienced some sort of intrusive thought—something unwanted that seems to just sort of pop into your head. That’s totally normal: According to a 2014 study from Concordia University, 94 percent of people have at some point.

But not everyone who experiences intrusive thoughts has OCD. As study co-author Adam Radomsky said, “most people who have an intrusive thought about jumping off a balcony or a metro platform would tell themselves that it’s a strange or silly thing to think, whereas a person with OCD may worry that the thought means they’re suicidal. OCD patients experience these thoughts more often and are more upset by them, but the thoughts themselves seem to be indistinguishable from those occurring in the general population.”

The International OCD Foundation notes that when evaluating a patient, a therapist will look to see if the person has obsessions and acts out compulsive behaviors. They’ll also assess whether the obsessions and compulsions are taking a lot of time away from a person’s regular activities such as school, work, and socializing. The occasional intrusive thought isn’t enough to warrant a diagnosis.

Getting an official diagnosis can be tricky—and not just because of the barriers to mental healthcare many people face, financial and otherwise. It can take between 14 to 17 years, on average, for a person to get the right diagnosis and treatments. Some people may hide their symptoms; some therapists may misdiagnose the condition. And though the brain of someone with OCD actually can look different than someone who is more neurotypical, a brain scan still isn’t enough to make a diagnosis. As Christopher Pittenger wrote for the Yale School of Medicine, brain scans can offer scientific insights—some of which we get into below—but they’re not diagnostic tests. The scans don’t really allow doctors to make predictions about an individual person. Most individuals with OCD actually have completely typical brain scans.

Only a trained therapist can diagnose OCD, so it’s probably best to avoid Dr. Google. 

Misconception: We know what causes OCD.

Though we said before that stress can make symptoms worse, we don’t actually know what causes OCD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there is a variety of risk factors that could make a person more susceptible to the disorder. Genetics could play a role, since studies have shown that people with immediate relatives who have OCD are more likely to develop it.

Brain structure could also be to blame. PET imaging has revealed that in some cases, a person with OCD may have increased activity in certain parts of their brain. As the Yale School of Medicine puts it, the positive feedback loop between a person’s cortex, striatum, and thalamus—the brain circuit in charge of executing movement and forming habits—goes into overdrive. The anterior cingulate cortex, anterior thalamus, and insula may also be hyperactive. Additionally, OCD has been shown to reduce gray matter—the stuff that helps you process information—in sections that deal with impulse control. 

It’s believed that a person’s environment could also be a factor, but research about whether childhood trauma is to blame isn’t yet definitive. It’s thought that even an illness or just general life stress could trigger OCD.

Misconception: OCD is a mental superpower.

A woman touching a row of sweaters on hangers
A person having OCD doesn't necessarily mean their closet is perfectly organized according to color. / pipat wongsawang/Moment/Getty Images

If you’re a fan of the TV show Monk, you may have unconsciously absorbed the idea that OCD gives people some kind of super abilities. In the show, Tony Shalhoub plays Adrian Monk, a detective with severe OCD. And though Monk is often hampered by stereotypical compulsions, like cleaning and counting, the show also sort of portrays his disorder as giving him an edge as a detective. In one controversial episode, he loses his detective skills while on medication for OCD. Sure, it’s just a show, and we doubt many people actively think the condition makes someone a super-detective. But there are lots of examples in pop culture of portraying mental illness, on some level, as some kind of superpower, and these misrepresentations could very well subtly shape our attitudes.

The reality of OCD is that it can be debilitating, and that OCD is much more likely to be a source of intense anxiety and anguish than something people cherish on any level. People with OCD have higher rates of suicidal ideation. Research has shown that two-thirds of people with the disorder have had thoughts of death or suicide. People with OCD also have higher rates of disordered eating, and about one-quarter of them experience major depressive episodes. That’s not to say that an OCD diagnosis is some kind of death sentence, but it can be quite a serious condition, and it’s worth thinking about how pop culture influences our attitudes towards it.

Misconception: OCD is untreatable.

Though there’s no cure for OCD, that doesn’t mean things can’t get better. People can learn to manage their symptoms. There are several things someone with OCD can do to mitigate the disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), particularly a type called exposure and response prevention (ERP), is one method. With this type of therapy, patients begin to face the situations they typically avoid and attempt to stop their compulsive rituals. Medicine is another option that can help ease OCD symptoms for some people. With the right treatment and management, it’s entirely possible for someone with OCD to lead a typical life. According to the International OCD Foundation, seven out of 10 people with OCD have improved their symptoms with medication or ERP. Those who take medication often have their symptoms reduced by up to 60 percent, and CBT has a success rate between 65 and 80 percent for kids and adolescents. 

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