OCD is complex and affects people in varying ways, but for some reason it is often reduced to an inconvenient affliction for people who are particularly tidy or germaphobic. Because OCD is misunderstood, people who suffer with it can internalise certain beliefs which perpetuate their worries, making them think they are ‘bad’ or ‘weird’. This is NOT OK, so we’re determined to break down these stigmas. Below are some of the common myths held about OCD followed by the facts.
This. Gets. On. Our. Nerves! The phrase ‘a little bit OCD’ is thrown around a lot these days. It has become equated with tidiness, cleanliness or any kind of ‘perfectionist’ behaviour. However, unless your behaviour is negatively affecting your day-to-day life, and unless the urge to wash, clean or organise is a response to feelings of distress, fear or disgust, you are likely someone who just takes pride in being a neat or organised person. Which is great! Trust us, you wouldn’t wish just a ‘little bit’ of OCD on your worst enemy.
It is true that a fear of contamination is a common one for OCD sufferers. However, it is just as common for OCD sufferers to be messy, disorganised people who don’t think twice about how clean their hands are.
You sure about that?
Around 2% of the population in Australia have OCD, however, like many mental illnesses, it won’t often be obvious when someone is suffering from it. Those who do perform physical compulsions like checking, counting or cleaning will often try to hide them from others, and become very good at doing so. And there are many OCD sufferers who don’t perform physical compulsions at all, with most of the compulsions being carried out in their heads.
Because there is so little understanding about OCD, people can often think that OCD is not that serious. However, OCD is often a debilitating illness which can cause sufferers to spend hours a day ruminating over horrible, intrusive thoughts, performing compulsions and suffering extreme anxiety. Left untreated, OCD can seriously affect people’s ability to socialise, work and generally function. OCD is often comorbid with other mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and a study conducted in 2016 found that that those with OCD are up to ten times more likely to die by suicide than than the general population.
This tends to be a common misunderstanding amongst people who experience OCD. While all people have intrusive thoughts, people with OCD often put much more emphasis on their thoughts, and worry that their thoughts will lead them to do something they don’t want to do.
People with OCD will often experience a cognitive process called Thought-Action-Fusion (TAF) which assumes that because a thought has occurred, it will always be accompanied by an action.
For example, someone experiencing TAF might experience a thought about harming their baby, and because the thought is there, they will then believe that they are likely to act on that thought, and conclude that they must be a terrible parent who cannot safely look after their child. Awful, right?
What Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy and more general Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help people experiencing TAF realise, is that there is often a huge gap between a thought and an associated action and that they are creating an imaginary bridge in between the two, which just doesn’t exist.
Everybody experiences weird, distressing or disturbing thoughts every now and then. For example ‘I wonder what would happen if I punched this annoying person in the face right now, whilst they’re mid-sentence’? People with OCD, however, tend to give these thoughts much more attention or meaning. And when a person starts worrying about the presence of a particular thought, it often starts to repeat, which then makes them even more distressed. It is important to note that people who experience OCD are no more likely to act on their disturbing thoughts than the general population and often their thoughts are not in line with their own values or beliefs. Click here for a great book that goes into this in more depth.
To this point, people with OCD can begin to think of their intrusive thoughts as a character flaw, making them a ‘bad’ person. The truth is that our thoughts actually have absolutely nothing to do with our character. Our character is determined by what we choose to actively do, or not do. Our thoughts are often not under our control, and therefore they often do not reflect our true selves.
A thought that repeats is not more important or doesn’t make it true. In fact, the more you try to stop thinking a certain thought or try to push it away, the more likely it is to stay in your mind. If we told you to not think about elephants—what would you do? Immediately think about elephants!
There is a common saying in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a good one to remember—“what you resist persists”. It’s easier said than done, but the more you can accept the thought and realise that thoughts are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but just ‘are’, the less they will repeat.
These myths and others can be further explored in this awesome book Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.