Today’s insights come from Institute staff therapist Jenny Welbel, LPC. Jennifer runs the support group The Anxiety Network, a place for young adults who are struggling with OCD and/or anxiety disorders. Today, she discusses the myths surrounding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), how those myths are perpetuated, their consequences, and how they can be combated.
What OCD Myths Sound & Look Like
There are many myths that perpetuate the misunderstanding of OCD. Often times, individuals confuse a desire to be neat, clean or organized with obsessions and compulsions.
For example, it is not uncommon to hear:
I have OCD because…
I like things to be really organized and neat.
I am a perfectionist.
I have a specific morning routine.
I like my chores to be done in a specific way.
I am obsessed with a certain TV show.
I am superstitious.
I don’t like germs.
Additionally, there are a few television shows and movies that come to mind, including As Good As It Gets and Monk. Although both the movie and television show, respectively, depict aspects of OCD, they fail to reflect the pervasive anxiety that underlies the disorder and the constant struggle that individuals with OCD encounter on a daily basis.
Why They’re Myths
OCD is so much more than counting, checking and hand-washing—it consists of persistent and uncontrollable thoughts and images and excessive physical and mental rituals that significantly impact an individual’s functioning.
In order to be diagnosed with OCD, an individual must have obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that make the individual anxious or cause the individual great distress that the individual tries to ignore or suppress. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. The compulsion must be aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or preventing a dreaded consequence from occurring and, if not done, the individual will experience great anxiety.
It is important to note that it is not uncommon for many individuals to have specific rituals or routines. However, the problem arises, and a diagnosis of OCD considered, when they start interfering in an individual’s life, causing the individual significant anxiety.
OCD is a neurobiological disorder that can be diagnosed in individuals as young as six and usually has onset before 25. The best treatment for individuals with OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention. In Exposure and Response Prevention, individuals learn to repeatedly confront their anxiety provoking thought, situation, or image, and to stay in those anxiety situations until their anxiety decreases. By doing so, individuals learn that when they stay in the situation, their anxiety will naturally decrease and that what they fear happening typically does not occur. However, telling a person to just stop doing their compulsion does not work. The individual’s compulsion is driven by anxiety and fear and although it may seem illogical to someone else, it feels absolutely necessary to the individual.
What Myths Do
In addition to television shows and movies, the biggest way that these myths and misunderstandings are perpetuated is in how individuals speak about themselves and others. For example, when individuals say, “I am so OCD about my room being clean” or “She is so OCD about her grades,” it significantly diminishes the severity of the disorder and contributes to the misconceptions about OCD. It also stigmatizes the disorder and, for some individuals, makes it more challenging to seek out help. For example, imagine if you confided in a friend that you had OCD and the friend said, “Well, so do I—I always check to make sure my hair straightener is off.” That type of statement makes it challenging for the individual to feel understood and then potentially less likely to seek treatment.
How It Can Change
The most important thing for individuals and families dealing with OCD to do is to educate others about OCD and their struggles. Silence about OCD only contributes to its misunderstanding and perpetuation of myths. Individuals can help to reduce the sigma and educate others by directing them to OCD websites such as beyondocd.org, ocfoundation.org and adaa.org. Families can also attend support groups and work with the schools to get their child the appropriate accommodations, if necessary.
Jennifer Welbel, LPC, is a Staff Therapist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University in the Anxiety and Panic Treatment Program and the Depression Treatment Program. Ms. Welbel specializes in using cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and exposure therapies (ERP) to treat children, adolescents, and adults with obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, such as trichotillomania and hoarding, anxiety (e.g., social anxiety, school refusal, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and driving phobia), and depression.
Click here to read Jennifer’s full bio and to make an appointment.
Click here to learn more about the psychoeducation group for young adults, The Anxiety Network.
The Family Institute offers affordable counseling for families, couples and individuals. Visit our website to learn more.