It is estimated that about 2 percent of the population suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But despite the attention it has received in the media and from medical professionals, this condition is still not fully understood by most people and, consequently, there are many mistaken beliefs floating around about what OCD is, who is most at risk, and how it should be treated. Seamlessly blending truth and fictional elements, the troublesome mythology surrounding OCD misleads at the same time it informs. The existence of this partially false belief system is unfortunate because those who suspect they may have OCD—and the people who love them—deserve to know the facts about this disorder so they can make good decisions about how to deal with it moving forward. So in order to help clear the fog of mystery and confusion that too often obscures the truth about this unpleasant and life-altering condition, we offer the following seven obsessive-compulsive disorder myths that are in serious need of debunking:
Myth #1: Women suffer from OCD much more frequently than men.
Thetruth: This is undoubtedly the most widely believed myth about OCD, but, in fact, men are just as likely as women to develop an obsessive-compulsive condition at some point in their lives. The idea of a gender difference is probably based in part on the fact that women are generally more comfortable talking about their deepest secrets and darkest feelings in front of strangers than men and therefore are more likely to seek treatment when they believe they may be suffering from a mental disorder. This is of course a good thing; however, because many women believe they are more vulnerable to OCD, they will sometimes misinterpret their desire to keep things clean and orderly as a sign of illness when in fact such a preference is usually entirely normal. And this latter observation leads us to the next myth on our list…
Myth #2: OCD is an extreme version of the common human need for order and cleanliness.
The truth: OCD is a type of mental illness with its own distinct characteristics and patterns of development. In no way, shape, or form can it be considered an exaggerated form of any normal preference, and while many people who develop OCD will show extreme tendencies to clean, that is just one possible manifestation of the disorder and should not be seen as something inevitable or indicative of a direct connection. And again one myth leads us to another…
Myth #3: OCD almost always relates in some way to cleaning.
The truth: While it is true that many OCD sufferers impulsively clean their homes or themselves or other spaces where they spend time, this should be understood as a coping mechanism and not a result of some hidden cause-and-effect relationship. Anxiety disorders, of which OCD is one, really involve an excessive fear of the unknown. Hence, many OCD victims will attempt to stave off or counteract the dread they feel in the face of uncertainty by bringing as much stability, predictability and order into their lives as they possibly can—and cleaning and organizing everything is one way to make this happen.
Myth #4: OCD is caused by stress.
The truth: OCD is a mental disorder that can be exacerbated by stress, but that is not the same as it being caused by stress. Because OCD is related to anxiety, it is hardly surprising that stressful situations might provoke episodes of OCD behavior, and indeed stress seems to be a common trigger for most victims of the disorder. However, it is the presence of OCD that leaves these people vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed by stress in the first place, so if anything, the cause-and-effect relationship between the two is the reverse of what myth #4 is suggesting. But putting aside questions of cause-and-effect for the moment, some are skeptical that this illness even exists.
Myth #5: People who supposedly suffer from OCD just lack willpower.
The truth: Those who suggest this are lacking in common sense. Modern medical technology has revealed abnormalities in the brain activity of OCD sufferers, and at this point no informed medical professional doubts that OCD is a real physical illness. It is true that victims of OCD will need to find a renewed strength of purpose if they expect to learn how to effectively cope with their disorder, but this is also true for those who suffer from conditions like depression and anxiety disorders, and no one would think to suggest that the terrible symptoms associated with these conditions are imaginary or easy to overcome. Even if we acknowledge the existence of OCD, however, the question of how it originates still remains to be answered…
Myth #6: The way a person is raised makes them vulnerable to OCD.
The truth: Blaming the parents for everything is a popular strategy these days, so it is not surprising to find that some believe OCD results from a bad upbringing. But this is simply not true; OCD appears to be largely a genetic condition, and there is no evidence to support the notion that poor parenting causes this disorder to manifest. But OCD often does first develop in childhood or adolescence, and if parents do not respond to its presence with kindness, tolerance and understanding, they can certainly make things worse. And that brings us to the last and potentially most harmful myth about obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Myth #7: OCD can be cured quite easily.
The truth: People can survive and even thrive despite the presence of OCD. Nevertheless, it is not a condition that can be conquered or cured. Learning to control OCD well enough to function and live a normal life usually requires a combination of medication and long-term intensive behavioral counseling. There is nothing easy about this devastating and debilitating mental disorder, and anyone who receives a diagnosis of OCD will face a long, hard road back to good health.