“It’s When You Wash Your Hands A Lot” and Other Common Myths About OCD

There are a whole lot of myths floating around out there when it comes to OCD. Even among mental health professionals, it tends to be a very poorly understood condition. As a result, it can take a long time for individuals with OCD to be accurately diagnosed, and it can be difficult for sufferers to be taken seriously once they share their diagnosis. So, in the spirit of dispelling some of the misinformation out there, here are 3 of the top myths around the disorder:

1. OCD is When You Wash Your Hands a Lot. While a large percentage of people with OCD worry about germs and contamination (and subsequently wash their hands a lot), this is definitely not the only manifestation of OCD. People with OCD can suffer from scrupulosity (a fear of going to hell, being a sinner, disappointing God), the fear of being a pedophile, worries that one is sick or going to get sick, the fear of throwing up, the fear of being sexually “deviant” in some way, fears of being a violent or suicidal person who could hurt oneself and/or others, and any number of other fears or worries (I encounter new OCD fears all the time in my practice). People with OCD struggle around not being able to acheive absolute certainty that their fears are unfounded (no one can be 100% absolutely certain that they are not going to hell). They then develop rituals that serve to calm their worries. These can include repetitively asking others reassurance questions, saying prayers a certain way throughout the day, needing to get one’s thoughts and behavior “just right” before moving on, having to see medical specialists repeatedly and, sometimes, washing one’s hands a lot,

2. If You Are a “Neat Freak,” You Have OCD. Neatness, organization, and cleanliness are very common traits in the general population. All people fall somewhere on a spectrum of being completely disorganized/messy to extremely neat/tidy. It is important to remember that this is not the same thing as having OCD. People with OCD experience extreme emotional distress when they are unable to complete their rituals (which sometimes do involve cleaning and organizing). They are also severely debilitated by their OCD urges and fears in at least one area of their life from the disorder (family relationships, friendships, work or school functioning, etc.)

3. OCD is When You Get Intrusive Thoughts. Many people describe OCD as a mental health disorder when you get intrusive thoughts. This is not entirely correct because in actuality everyone gets intrusive thoughts. Imagining your baby falling onto the sidewalk, envisioning your spouse’s funeral, imagining someone naked, or seeing an image of yourself cutting your wrists while you’re holding a knife: all people can experience these sorts of thoughts. The difference with someone with OCD is the extreme emotional distress that these intrusions bring on. Someone with OCD has a hard time not realizing that intrusive thoughts have no meaning. You’re not a bad person if you have a bad thought. And you’re not a pedophile just because an image of a naked child entered your mind. Someone with OCD becomes so disturbed by these thoughts that they will do whatever is necessary to try and not have them. But, of course, what happens when you are scared of having a thought, and try not to have it? That’s right, you end up having that thought even more, and really end up becoming tortured by it. So, while everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, people with OCD end up experiencing specific intrusive thoughts repeatedly.

OCD is a very real and painful struggle for those who have it. But once it is identified, it is also a very treatable condition. Through raising public awareness, we can hopefully reduce the stigma for individuals with OCD and help them to find effective treatment earlier on in their lives.