By Kayt Sukel
A few weeks ago, I was watching a movie with my daughter. In one scene, the protagonist described her Type A, neat-freak friend who was rearranging her closet by color and shape as “so OCD” in a somewhat disparaging manner.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Movies like “What About Bob?!” and “As Good As It Gets” have characterized obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors in stereotyped—and often incorrect—ways for decades. But according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a serious disorder affecting more than 2 million Americans. As such, it shouldn’t be taken so lightly.
So what do we get wrong about OCD? Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D., the Director of the Bio Behavior Institute in Great Neck, New York, member of the International OCD Federation‘s Scientific and Clinical Advisory Board, and therapist specializing in OCD, says that popular culture references to neat freaks, worrywarts and repetitive hand washing misidentify OCD.
“People think of OCD as having to do with worrying all the time, double checking door locks, or talking about one thing a lot. But that’s not really what OCD is about,” she says. “It is a clinical disorder where you see a preoccupation with particular thoughts that are pervasive and very persistent. And those preoccupations get to the point where they interfere with functioning and daily life activities.”
Neziroglu says that clinical OCD is characterized by the duration of these preoccupying thoughts, distress over those thoughts, and interference with activities of daily living. They need to meet all three of those criteria to qualify as the disorder.
“We all, from time to time, may have thoughts that come into our head that bother us. Perhaps a morbid thought or a nagging worry. But we have the ability to dismiss those thoughts and get on with life,” she says. “Someone with OCD cannot dismiss those thoughts, they obsess over them for an hour or even longer, and then need to perform some kind of action in order to decrease the anxiety associated with that particular preoccupation.”
Neziroglu says that popular culture references to OCD are too light—and don’t convey the actually suffering and distress caused by the disorder.
“These comments really minimize the symptoms and make it seem like it’s something that may be easy to just get over. They use the term ‘OCD’ too loosely and really trivialize it,” she says. “But, that said, these references are also bringing the disorder to people’s attention. Today, most people I know have heard about OCD. Twenty years ago, nobody even knew what OCD was.”
She hopes that recognition will help individuals who may be suffering from obsessive or compulsive symptoms to become more educated on the disorder, and, if those symptoms are interfering with function, to seek out help from a qualified mental health professional.
“If you are having OCD-like symptoms, and they are causing you distress, there is help out there. If it is interfering with your life, with socializing, school or work, the sooner you get into therapy, the more likely it is to go away,” she says. “But you need to understand what OCD really is so you know when it’s time to ask for that help.”
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