Over the years, some mental health terminology has crossed into everyday language. Casual representations of mental health conditions on TV or in conversation might seem harmless, but they often oversimplify and misinform people about complicated conditions. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is no stranger to this kind of misuse. We asked Rebecca Billerio-Riff, LMSW, a therapist at Sheppard Pratt’s Center for OCD and Anxiety, to share some misconceptions about OCD and why it’s important to set the record straight.
Myth: “We’re all a little OCD.”
TRUTH: “People throw the term ‘OCD’ around like it’s a good thing: attention to details, cleanliness,”
Billerio-Riff says. “By doing that, you’re invalidating the suffering that people truly deal with.” It’s not inter- changeable with being particular or organized. OCD is a disorder, and that is the part that people forget when they mention it in everyday language. “The people I see would give anything not to have OCD. Treating it like a compliment minimizes that pain,” Billerio-Riff says.
Myth: “It’s all about cleanliness and germophobia.”
TRUTH: Expressions of OCD span an incredibly broad continuum. OCD can latch on to any unwanted, intrusive thought. Common obsessions include fear of germs or contamination; fear of forgetting or losing something; and aggressive, vio- lent, or taboo thoughts. “The obsessive-compulsive cycle,” Billerio-Riff says, “begins with an unwanted thought of some kind, which leads to an uncomfort- able feeling like guilt, shame, disgust, or anxiety. The
individual then seeks to relieve this feeling with a compulsive behavior.” While compulsions might include handwashing or checking locks, they can appear in countless ways.
Myth: “People with OCD just need to relax.”
TRUTH: “OCD causes the brain to have trouble moving on from something that it has determined urgent and important,” Billerio-Riff says. “The chemical reactions causing those emotional and physiological responses are very real.” While relaxation techniques can help someone calm that immediate reaction, it’s not a solution. “Calming the emotional response may be part of it,” Billerio-Riff says, “but someone with OCD must also learn that they can handle that feeling without a compulsive behavior.”
Why setting the record straight matters
People suffering from OCD already feel isolated and lonely. “To have people throwing the term around casually overlooks and minimizes the suffering that is happening,” Billerio-Riff says. “The way it is used in popular culture further prevents people from truly understanding what OCD is.”