What Does It Mean to Have OCD?
Having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) isn’t easy. The condition, marked by uncontrollable thoughts and behaviors, strikes about 2% of the general population—a figure that in the U.S. alone means nearly 6.5 million people. If you’ve made it past young adulthood without developing any symptoms, you’re likely in the clear.
You wouldn’t know that to hear people talk, however. In recent years, OCD has become the psychological equivalent of hypoglycemia or gluten sensitivity: a condition untold numbers of people casually—almost flippantly—claim they’ve got, but in most cases don’t. Folks who hate a messy desk but could live with one for a day do not necessarily have OCD. Nor do those who wash their hands before eating but would still have lunch if there was no soap and water nearby. Yet the almost sing-songy declaration “I’m so OCD!” seems to be everywhere.
Some of the confusion is understandable. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)—the field guide to psychological conditions—lists OCD among the anxiety disorders, and nearly everyone has experienced anxiety. The thing is, though, you’ve experienced headaches, too, but that doesn’t mean you know what a migraine feels like unless you’ve had one. Same with the pain of OCD, which can interfere with work, relationships and more.
“The brain is conditioned to alert us to anything that threatens our survival, but this system is malfunctioning in OCD,” says psychologist Steven Phillipson, clinical director of the Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Psychotherapy in New York City. “That can result in a tsunami of emotional distress that keeps your attention absolutely focused.”
No single fear defines the condition. There are familiar obsessions like washing your hands or checking the stove. But there’s also hoarding, hypochondria or a terrible fear you’re going to harm somebody. People with a common type of OCD can even have paralyzing anxiety over their own sexual orientation.