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Challenging myths about . . . OCD

A lack of understanding about obsessive-compulsive disorder leads to stigmatisation. Dr Padraic Gibson busts five OCD myths

The stereotype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has made this chronic mental health condition seem quirky – even funny. It’s belittled as the systematic behaviour of an eccentric and colourful person, and it has long been something to be amused by or ridiculed.

This distorted view of OCD has garnered long-lasting misconceptions and varying myths that are intrinsically damaging to society’s understanding and perception of this anxiety syndrome.

Far from simply being obsessed with cleaning, maintaining order, or having unusual repetitive habits, OCD centres on recurrent or persistent thoughts that become invasive and invariably intrusive or upsetting, causing anxiety or distress. These are obsessions. It is not always possible to ignore these thoughts, and the more a person tries, the more anxious they may become. In an attempt to control these thoughts or silence them, the person may slowly begin to perform repetitive behaviours that can themselves become intrusive. These behaviours are compulsions that lead to ritualistic behaviour, and so a cycle of OCD begins.

A lack of understanding about what causes OCD, how the cycle becomes embedded and continues, and how to relieve OCD symptoms plays into the shame and stigma of the condition. Dr Padraic Gibson, clinical director of The OCD Clinic in Dublin, has written extensively on the topic of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Here he helps debunk some of the common myths surrounding OCD.


1) Myth - We’re all a little OCD

The abbreviation OCD has filtered into everyday language so much so that we often hear quips about someone having OCD if they clean more than expected. It’s a generalised viewpoint that suggests “we’re all a little OCD”.

“This is true to an extent,” says Dr Gibson, “as in that we all seek to control aspects of our life where possible. However, control, if it is allowed go beyond a certain level, begins to feel very different, and transforms itself into an obsession. As Samuel Johnson once wrote, the chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

OCD, however, is not a personality trait. It is not simply something someone does or has. While we all have our quirks, OCD is not one of them. OCD falls under the umbrella of anxiety disorders with genuine compulsions stemming from anxiety. To assume that we all have tendencies to be a little OCD invalidates a person’s lived experience of the condition.

2) Myth - OCD is about cleanliness

Perhaps the most common misconception about OCD is that the person is a germaphobe and is obsessed with handwashing and cleaning to the highest extent. Cleanliness is not a prerequisite to experiencing OCD.

The difficulty in understanding this symptom of OCD is that many of us may feel cleanliness, maintaining order and being vigilant of germs is a personality trait. Where it differs is that for a person with OCD there is no control over their behaviours as they battle anxiety, whereas if it is a personality trait, a person can choose to clean or not.

Relaxation, unfortunately, is seen in the modern world as the solution to all forms of anxiety. However, the truth is far from it

—  Dr Padraic Gibson, clinical director of The OCD Clinic in Dublin

“OCD symptoms or behaviours can express itself through cleaning but this not so different to other forms of obsession based on doubt,” says Dr Gibson. “So, while cleaning can be the symptom, the underlying perception of needing to control something is the driving force behind the cleaning.”

OCD is centred on obsessions and compulsions, between debilitating, intrusive and damaging thoughts, and repetitive, restrictive behaviours.

3) Myth - You just need to relax more

OCD is so frequently misrepresented that many believe that those with OCD can simply change their thought patterns, turn it off and try to relax more. But, as a diagnosable condition, OCD is centred on intrusive thoughts that are processed in a certain way, are judgemental in nature and come with added gravity and seriousness. The interpretation of the information can’t be turned off and relaxing is not a possibility.

“Relaxation, unfortunately, is seen in the modern world as the solution to all forms of anxiety,” says Dr Gibson. “However, the truth is far from it. When our body sees something as threatening it will activate our body to deal with the threat, so it’s our perception of the problem that leads to anxiety. While relaxing may offer very short-term relief, it doesn’t tackle the underlying perception that triggers the physical response.”

The more distressing a thought for a person with OCD, the stronger the compulsions and behaviours to create a kind of temporary relief. Attempting to relax may only heighten the fears and anxieties.

4) Myth - There is no treatment

“Not true,” says Dr Gibson. “OCD is one of the great success stories of our field and we can say now that about 88 per cent of our patients will go on to live a life free of OCD.”

The belief that OCD is not treatable has been detrimental in whether a person seeks help or not. This myth that a person must learn to live with the condition aids the embarrassment and stigma associated with this and other mental health conditions. While OCD cannot be cured, it is treatable, with symptoms being brought under control.

“Sometimes OCD can resolve itself spontaneously,” says Dr Gibson. “However, because it has its roots in a very rigid perception, it can be a stubborn problem and, like most human problems, it is very difficult to change the system we are ourselves part of. It is also very difficult to recognise our behaviour at an early enough stage, and a failure on professionals to recognise the problem that leads to the issue being so difficult. But successful treatment should fully resolve the issue.”

5) Myth - OCD is rare in kids

Anyone can have OCD, including kids. Part of this myth includes OCD being caused by bad parenting if a child does experience OCD. While OCD has been determined to have a strong genetic basis, how a child interacts and relates to family members and the home environment is not suggestive of predetermined OCD. However, symptoms of OCD have been shown to appear in children between the ages of eight and 12.

“Children regularly demonstrate repetitive behaviours, fixations, character traits and often grow out of them as they mature,” says Dr Gibson. “Some children may develop traits that leave them more predisposed to an OCD tendency and so will develop the condition. Diagnosable OCD in children is difficult to pin down for this reason, but most adults will often say they felt their fears, compulsions and worries existed in earlier life.”

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