Why You're Probably Not 'So OCD'. Here's What It's *Really* Like To Have It

"I'm so OCD about cleaning," is something we've all heard before. But, let's face it, they're probably talking about having a mean cleaning streak, rather than actually suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder.

"It's a term which has become overused to describe anyone who demonstrates tendencies towards orderliness and perfectionism," explains Michelle Dalley, a therapist at the Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

Although obsessions and compulsions are normal and are experienced by most people, Dalley explains OCD is characterised by the presence of recurrent obsessions.

"This can include persistent thoughts and images which cause distress, and compulsions including ritualistic and checking behaviours (both overt such as washing hands, and covert such as counting), which are carried out with the aim of reducing anxiety."

So what's the difference between someone who experiences obsessions and compulsions, and someone who is diagnosed with OCD?

"The difference lies in their beliefs," Dalley says. "For those who suffer with OCD an intrusive thought or image can trigger beliefs about the significance of that thought/ or image. For example, 'if I think it, it must be true', which can give rise to uncomfortable feelings such as shame, guilt or terror and lead the person to become withdrawn and isolated.

"The fear caused by the intrusions and the 'if I think it, it must be true' belief frequently leads the person to try and control the intrusions with behaviours. These compulsive behaviours become problematic and can cause additional distress as they impact more and more on the person’s life.

"A person suffering from OCD may begin to avoid certain situations or people, or their compulsive behaviours may cause disruptions in day to day life. A person may be late for work because they are unable to bring their compulsive behaviour to a satisfactory conclusion.

"Ultimately these compulsions result in the fear of experiencing fear and anxiety."

Those who suffer from OCD often have a heightened sense of responsibility and find it difficult to tolerate uncertainty. They may also overestimate threat and often describe themselves as perfectionists.

Lizzie Green, a 20-year-old from London, had to leave her psychology course at Westminster University due to her OCD and eating disorder. Despite suffering from OCD for more than a decade, she was only diagnosed a year ago.

"Too often I hear people saying 'I am so OCD about tidying my room'."

"Without even realising what I was doing, my life compiled of obsessive rituals, unnecessarily repeating actions and steps," she says.

"Everything would take me double the amount of time needed, and I was completely consumed by thoughts. My thoughts stemmed from 'if I didn't do this certain action that my mind was telling me to, something "bad" would happen.' I was conflicted whether doing this action is preferable to whatever this 'bad' thing is so I just carried them out."

Lizzie has regular intensive therapy sessions, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which she says she "tries my best" to implement into her daily routine. Although she has had lots of support from her family, friends and medical team, she says stigma around OCD and other mental illnesses is rife.

"I believe it vitally important that we do our best at the moment to help with the de-stigmatisation. Too often, people believe mental illness and illnesses such as OCD, are easily gotten rid of and might be thought of as 'attention seeking' or simply just rather daft.

"People need to realise how debilitating OCD is and the amount of shame accompanying it," Lizzie adds.

"I desperately believe that education is the key to awareness of OCD. Too often I hear people saying "I am so OCD about tidying my room." Are they really suffering from OCD, or are they just a tidy person who likes to live in a neat space?!

"OCD is vastly different from being tidy. It shouldn't be an adjective people throw around to describe themselves as. It is a serious illness and can dramatically affect someone's life.

"However, I believe from more people talking about it and educating the public, everyone can learn a lot and the stigma surrounding it will significantly change."

How to help yourself if you have OCD

  • Discussing the experience and seeking help can be difficult - but there is help out there.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been found to be highly effective at treating OCD.
  • For some it can be helpful to take medication to help reduce anxiety which can help the sufferer actively engage in therapeutic treatment
  • The first step to getting help is to begin to open up about what you are experiencing and consult with a GP or health professional who can then point you in the right direction for the treatment you can receive.

Helpful advice for those living with a person who has OCD on the OCD-UK website.