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OCD Series: What is OCD?

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

If you buy into the cultural narrative around OCD, it might not seem like such a bad thing to have. I mean, we're in a pandemic, and people with OCD are super clean, right? Or they really like having things all arranged and are the most organized people, right?


Wrong wrong wrong.

OCD isn't a cute personality quirk. It's a mental illness, and real OCD sufferers would tell you - no one wants it. OCD is the kind of illness that can make you three hours late to work because you couldn't walk through your door the right way. OCD is the kind of difficulty that can trap you inside your mind for hours when you just needed a relaxing night in. OCD is the kind of disorder that can make your water bill $500+ per month from excessive showers you can't stop taking.

OCD is no one's idea of fun.

So, wait a minute, what even is OCD?

OCD is characterized by a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions increase anxiety, compulsions are the response to the obsession where you try to relieve that anxiety. Once that cycle becomes time-consuming or impacts your functioning, it becomes a disorder.

Obsessions are not exciting or fun - in OCD, obsessions are scary thoughts. Obsessions could be literally anything - any unwanted thought, image, impulse. Compulsions could be literally any response to the obsessions. It's all about how it plays out.

You might have heard of things like contamination OCD (people who get stuck with handwashing or other cleaning) or checking OCD (classic = checking the locks and the stove again and again), but the OCD community would have you know - there are MANY forms of OCD, such as:

  • Pedophile OCD - involving the fear that you might be a pedophile (obsession) combined with repeated attempts to make sure that you are not a pedophile (compulsion)

  • Sexual Orientation OCD - involving doubting your own sexual orientation (gay or straight), in a way that really consumes your thoughts. Compulsions may involve things like checking whether different media or thoughts are arousing.

  • Tourettic OCD - involving responding to thoughts or uncomfortable feelings with tic-like behavior, like clearing your throat, shaking your head, or tapping in response to an unwanted thought or until you get the "right feeling"

  • "Just Right" OCD - involving needing to do things until they feel right, like walking through a door again and again until you feel you walked through the "right way," shutting a cabinet again and again until it closes "just right," etc.

  • Emotional Contamination OCD - involving fear that you may take on others' negative personality traits unless you do certain things, like avoid certain people and all things you associate with them

These types of OCD are only some of the subtypes - literally any obsession-compulsion cycle that gets out of control may be OCD.

Many people hear stories of more "classic" OCD like folks with contamination fears, and don't realize that their struggle is also OCD. And that's really unfortunate, because if you don't know you have OCD, it's really hard to get help for it.

All people struggling with OCD should know that treatment helps. Really helps. Like, 60-70% symptom reduction success. But only if you get the right treatment - you MUST find a provider who offers Exposure and Response Prevention. Look here for a great guide on how to find a therapist who really knows how to treat OCD.

If you're out there now, struggling with OCD, just know - there is hope.

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