“Ugh, I’m so OCD!” 

Everyone has probably heard this phrase at one time or another. It’s almost always uttered in reference to someone who is very organized, who likes to color-code their things, or who keeps a very tidy home. So, when we hear this phrase, it’s easy to assume that “OCD” is a synonym for “clean” or “organized.” And even if we know that OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a mental illness, this common misrepresentation encourages us to believe that it’s not that bad or that OCD isn’t quite as serious as other mental health disorders. After all, most people wish that they could be more organized. So, if your brain automatically makes you a clean and tidy person …what could be so bad about that? 

These are just a few of the common misconceptions that characterize our understanding of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And, unfortunately, the misinformation that surrounds this mental illness has created a lot of needless pain and suffering for people who live with OCD. So, in this article, we’re going to learn more about what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is and why these common myths aren’t true. 

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? 

Contrary to popular misconception, OCD is a lot more than simply “being organized.” In reality, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a serious mental illness that “affects 2.2 million adults, or 1.0% of the U.S. population,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. OCD can affect everyone equally; men and women, adults and children can all experience OCD. Studies conducted by the ADAA confirm that “the average age of onset is 19, with 25 percent of cases occurring by age 14. One-third of affected adults first experienced symptoms in childhood.” 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterized by the pervasive prevalence of intrusive thoughts and a cycle of obsessions and compulsions that are triggered by these intrusive thoughts. OCD is often misrepresented as a disorder that is primarily concerned with cleanliness and organization. But in reality, the themes of a person’s obsessions, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts can vary wildly.

Common themes: 

  • Religion
  • Sexuality
  • Moral scrupulosity
  • Harm 
  • Contamination
  • Existential anxiety
  • False memories

Unpacking Common Themes in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Now that we’ve taken a look at a few of the common themes experienced by people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, let’s explore them in closer detail to learn more about how these themes impact mental health. The best way to understand OCD themes is to think of them as the opposite of whatever you really want to do. For example, people who struggle with “contamination OCD” fear that they are secretly very dirty and/or carrying deadly bacteria that will harm others. People who live with this particular theme of OCD are so afraid that they will make others sick, so they spend hours cleaning, washing, and disinfecting everything in the desperate hope that their efforts will be enough. 

So, as you can see from this example, being dirty and infecting others is obviously the last thing that this person wants to do! Because they value cleanliness, health, and hygiene, OCD latches onto those values, distorting them until the person is terrified that they are violating their own core values. The same is true for other themes such as “harm OCD.” Just as people who have “contamination OCD” are actually clean and thoughtful people, people who battle “harm OCD” are often the kindest and most considerate people you will ever meet. Their core values include caring for others, being kind, and showing compassion. But “harm OCD” latches onto that, filling a person’s head with terrifying thoughts such as, “What if you stabbed your mom?” or “What if you killed your cat?” 

In reality, these thoughts are the polar opposites of a person’s real desires. The heart attitudes, values, and real actions of a person clearly indicate that they do not want to harm others, nor are they likely to ever act on their intrusive thoughts. So, because that person would never want to harm their mother or their pet, they become horrified by that thought, triggering an OCD thought cycle.

A typical OCD cycle works like this: 

  • You have a random thought that freaks you out
  • You think, “Why did that thought come into my head?? Does that mean I’m a terrible person?? Does that mean that’s what I really want to do?” 
  • You try to reassure yourself by doing things or thinking thoughts that reassure you or prove that terrible thought wrong. For example, you might think about a list of reasons that prove you love your mom or all the times you’ve been kind to your cat. The goal is to use logic to convince yourself that the terrible thought couldn’t be true. 
  • As you try to reassure yourself, OCD resurfaces, providing new reasons to doubt yourself and question the logic you just used. No matter how realistic your facts, no matter how irrefutable your logic, OCD will find a way to spread a seed of doubt. 
  • As a result, a person with OCD is likely to become more distressed and unintentionally begin the whole cycle again, trapping themselves in a seemingly inescapable web of fear and doubt 

Coping with OCD

This OCD cycle is the same, regardless of the theme, and it creates sheer agony for the person who is trapped in that cycle. So, if any of the symptoms discussed in this article feel relatable to you, it’s possible that you might be living with undiagnosed OCD. And if you’re struggling with any of these symptoms, you may want to reach out and seek help. 

OCD can steal a lot of your time and a lot of your joy. It can feel debilitating and inescapable. But it doesn’t have to ruin yourself. Although there is no cure for OCD, you can live a very happy and meaningful life as someone with OCD. Therapy can teach you the gold-standard coping mechanisms that are used to manage OCD symptoms and help you reclaim control. So, if you’re interested in getting help for your OCD symptoms, you can take the first step by taking this free OCD test from Mind Diagnostics. 

This self-guided assessment is not meant to function as a replacement for a professional diagnosis. But it is a gateway to learning more about your symptoms and connecting with a therapist. The test will ask you to assess your symptoms and their impact on your life before providing you with results and resources such as the contact information for a therapist who specializes in treating OCD.