8 Common Myths About OCD

You’ve heard of obsessive compulsive disorder — a mental illness affecting as many as 1 in 100 U.S. adults that’s marked by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. And you’ve probably seen it characterized in film and on TV (think Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets and Tony Shalhoub in Monk).

But how much do you really know about OCD?

Despite its prevalence, OCD is one of the most misunderstood health conditions out there. Perhaps due to stereotypical portrayals in the media, many people have ideas about it that simply aren’t true. That’s why we’re debunking some of OCD’s most common falsehoods — and giving you the facts.

Myth No. 1: All neat freaks have OCD. One common sign of OCD is an obsession with cleanliness — such as constantly washing your hands or excessively cleaning household items. But a cleanliness complex can also be a personality trait, says Jeff Szymanski, PhD, executive director of the International OCD Foundation and one of the world’s leading authorities on OCD. “And that’s part of the confusion. If it’s a personality trait, you have control — you can choose to do it or not. If you have obsessive compulsive disorder, you’re doing it out of unrelenting debilitating anxiety.”

Myth No. 2: OCD is all about cleanliness. Sure, a fixation on keeping things clean may a common compulsion of OCD, but it’s not the only one (and not everyone with OCD has it). Other common compulsions include hoarding items, checking and rechecking that you didn’t make a mistake, fearing something bad such as a fire or accident, and repeating routines such as going in and out of a door.

Myth No. 3: Stress causes OCD. Think people with OCD should just relax and stop obsessing? Szymanski says it’s not that simple. OCD incites uncontrollable fears and anxiety — and while stressful situations can exacerbate symptoms in people with obsessive compulsive disorder, stress alone does not cause it.

Myth No. 4: OCD is rooted in your childhood. Many people mistakenly believe that people who exhibit signs of OCD grew up in dysfunctional homes and have poor self-esteem as a result. “What happened in your childhood has very little to do with having OCD when you grow up,” Szymanski says. However, he notes, obsessive compulsive disorder does run in families and researchers believe genetics may play at least some part in its development, as well as experiences.

Myth No. 5: OCD is rare in kids. At least 1 in every 200 kids and teens has obsessive compulsive disorder, Szymanski says, and it can strike as young as 4 years old. “This is about the same number of children who have diabetes — but no one considers diabetes to be rare.” If you took an average-size elementary school, you’d find four or five kids with OCD. In a medium to large high school, you’d find about 20 students dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Myth No. 6: OCD is a woman’s disease. It may seem like more women than men would have an anxiety disorder like OCD, but according to the International OCD Foundation, OCD affects men, women, and children and of all ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds at the same rate. While signs of OCD can start at any age, it’s typically seen between the ages of 10 and 12 or between late teens and early adulthood.

Myth No. 7: Tests can confirm OCD. Unlike cancer or diabetes, obsessive compulsive disorder can’t be diagnosed with a blood test or a scan. However, your doctor is likely to conduct a physical examination and order tests to rule out other medical conditions. If mental health professionals suspect you have OCD, they are likely to ask you a series of questions and look for three signs of OCD: whether you have obsessions, whether you exhibit compulsive behaviors, and if you do, whether they get in the way of your normal activities.

Myth No. 8: OCD isn’t treatable. Many people don’t seek OCD treatment because they’re embarrassed, and that may be why people think it can’t be treated. “OCD is definitely treatable,” Szymanski says. The first line of OCD treatment is exposure and response prevention, a face-your-fears therapy. Some people need a combination of behavioral therapy and medications.

OCD cannot be cured, but it can be controlled with proper treatment.

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