Updated: Jan 26
For how frequently the term "OCD" gets thrown around in popular culture, the amount of confusion around this disorder is massive. It's not just hand-washing, liking things organized, or being wary of germs, and it doesn't have to be a life-sentence of constant, irreversible distress. There is so much more to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. If you're searching for the answer to the question, "Do I have OCD," knowing the symptoms and treatment can help you get started on the road to healing.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as therapy, nor is it a replacement for mental health treatment. It should not be considered professional, medical advice for any one individual and is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health condition, and does not create a clinician/client relationship. If in crisis, call 911 or go to local ER. See full disclosure statement here.
OCD is one of the most common debilitating disabilities in existence. In my opinion that's partly due to the gross misunderstanding of the illness, leading to statistics like: on average it takes 17 years for someone with OCD to receive proper treatment for the disorder, and only 10% of people with OCD receive a diagnosis. Whenever OCD is portrayed in the media, it's usually spoken about as a quirky personality trait or on the other hand, untreatable. With this being the case, it's no wonder when people hear the diagnosis they think there's no way they can ever get better. And yet, I see it every day.
What is OCD?
If you want to be technical, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is comprised of intrusive thoughts that quickly turn into obsessions (as in, they get stuck being replayed in the brain). These obsessions spark immense amounts of anxiety (imagine the most anxious you've ever been, and then imagine living in that state, constantly at war with your brain). The OCD brain then suggests compulsions to try to reduce the anxiety that's been sparked, with the hope that the compulsions will prevent the bad thing from happening.
Intrusive Thoughts in OCD
A key component of OCD is intrusive thoughts (and images and urges, but generally we just refer to them all as intrusive thoughts). These thoughts are ego-dystonic, meaning they go against the person's values and character.
There are different ideas behind why we have intrusive thoughts, especially amongst OCD specialists. One theory is that everyone has intrusive thoughts, but those who have OCD have brains that notice them more and can't filter them out. Another is that most intrusive thoughts are triggered by something in either the external or internal environment, and then turn into obsessions because of the faulty reasoning process of the OCD brain.
No matter the theory, both agree that intrusive thoughts are massively disturbing and generally involve things valued by the person. This is precisely what makes them so terrifying.
What are Obsessions?
Obsessions are what the intrusive thoughts turn into when you have OCD. A thought gets stuck in the brain because one part of your brain is over-functioning, while another is under-functioning. Basically, the OCD brain can't decide whether or not a thought is important, so it just keeps rolling around in the brain causing turmoil. And, generally if a scary thought is noticed, the OCD brain will assume it is important.
We also tend to see common themes of obsessions among those with OCD, likely due to shared human experience. Some common themes include: fears of causing harm, fear of hurting children, fear of acting in sexually inappropriate ways, fears of offending God (fun fact--the first records of OCD were found in religious monk texts), fear of never knowing your sexuality, fears of not being in the right relationship, fear of having underlying illness, fear of death, and postpartum fears surrounding a child.
It is important to note that no theme is unique. OCD is OCD is OCD and treatment will be the same for each theme.
What are Compulsions?
Compulsions are anything done to bring down the anxiety caused by the obsessions. These can be both mental and physical (hence where a lot of confusion around this disorder comes from). Common compulsions include: reassurance seeking, reassuring yourself, checking for external signs and internal signs of a bad thing, confessing, cleaning, counting, praying, and avoidance (yes, avoidance of something you would normally otherwise do is compulsive).
So, What's the answer to "Do I have OCD"?
My short answer is maybe, as I can't provide that answer to you via an article. However, if something compelled you to think, "Hmm maybe I have OCD" or you're experiencing intrusive thoughts, or you've tried talk therapy for general anxiety and nothing seems to be helping, I would highly suggest you contact an OCD specialist. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is often cloaked as just another anxiety disorder as most therapists don't receive much of any training in OCD treatment in graduate school, but their treatments are vastly different.
The very very good news is that even if you do have OCD, there are immensely effective treatments. You don't have to keep suffering, at war with your brain. You can live a full, rich life with an OCD diagnosis. So, if you're wondering, "Do I have OCD" please reach out today and start your road to recovery!
All my best,
Lauren Spencer, M.S., LMFT