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5 things you might not know about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Mayim explains what the oft-used term 'OCD' really means
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 10/09/2015 at 4:48 PM EDT
People with OCD can prefer things to be organized; but just because you like things organized doesn't mean you have OCD. Samuel Zeller/Unsplash

Some readers asked me to write more science-related posts, including specifically something about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. While I can’t fill all reader requests, I do have an interest in OCD because my doctoral thesis in Psychoneuroendocrinology (in the Neuroscience Department at UCLA) was on Obsessions and Compulsions in a population of individuals with a genetic syndrome called Prader-Willi Syndome (PWS). Individuals with PWS have a lot of psychiatric complexity to their syndrome, including high rates of OCD reported.

I have always had an interest in working with special needs individuals. My parents, who were public school teachers for a combined 70-some odd years both in New York and Los Angeles, were very sensitive to people with special needs, and I was raised with a distinct compassion and consciousness to include special individuals as much as possible in all aspect of socializing and education.

I knew I wanted to work with humans as a graduate student since, as a vegan, working with animals was simply not compatible with my worldview as a scientist. I learned about a variety of syndromes and felt that PWS needed a neuroscientist’s perspective, since most research in this population had been done by geneticists or psychiatrists.

I loved working with adolescents with PWS for my thesis and I had to learn a lot about OCD for the seven years I worked on my doctorate. From that exhaustive knowledge I gained, I wanted to share with you five facts you might not realize…

  1. You likely don’t have OCD. Just because you are fastidious or organized, it doesn’t mean you have OCD. People say things like, “I’m so OCD” and honestly, it bugs me. Just say you’re “particular” or “meticulous.” Don’t use the name of a legitimate syndrome, please; it takes away from the importance of the clinical diagnosis when you do that! (For one person’s experience of having OCD, see this piece from Cosmopolitan.)
  2. Both the “O” and the “C” need to be present to be diagnosed with OCD. OCD is comprised of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions tend to be “internal” thoughts or things that you can’t get out of your head; compulsions are the “external” behaviors done to try and manage the anxiety that the obsessions make you feel. So for example, someone with obsessions about cleanliness would have compulsive acts like hand-washing to combat the obsessions.
  3. There are areas of obsession and accompanying compulsions. Common obsessions tend to center around cleanliness and germs (including those around body functions and sexual functions), religious imagery and safety (did I lock the door? for example). The compulsions that go with these would be things done to reduce germs and maintain cleanliness, counting or repetitive behaviors and checking behaviors. (There are many more; those are just some examples.)
  4. With OCD, sometimes other things occur. People who get an OCD diagnosis also often get an anxiety diagnosis. Or sometimes a depression diagnosis. And things like skin-picking often occur in OCD. This is because we are all on a continuum of chemicals running through our bodies and brains. No one is “absolutely” anything. Depending on life situations, genetics and what kind of support you get, you may have more or fewer symptoms throughout your life. It’s not a constant.
  5. Medication can help. So can therapy like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or traditional psychotherapy. Many people live with aspects of OCD and find ways to manage them, but usually clinicians will want to know how much your OCD affects your life and schedule of the day. Some people may have a counting ritual that doesn’t upset them or take up much time, and if it doesn’t cause distress, it may just be that that’s your thing. In our current culture of a pill for everything, it’s important to realize that you don’t need to be symptom-free of every syndrome in order to function and have productive relationships and a good life. (Some of the characters on The Big Bang Theory are proof of that!)

If you would like to take the standard OCD assessment, it is available here.

If you need help with managing OCD symptoms or any other psychiatric condition, reach out to the National Alliance for Mental Illness for information about finding help in your area.

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