Obsessively pursuing the correct usage of the term OCD

Posted by Filza Hussain, M.D.
January 28, 2016

Blog_OCDI’ve previously written about the paradoxical adoption of psychiatric symptoms in our language, which would indicate acceptance. Yet, the continued stigma someone with an actual mental illness faces is alive and well. OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, is no different. Somewhere along the way, it not only became an adjective, but also a rather cool quirk we use in our day-to-day language. “Oh, my OCD is acting out — I had to tidy the kitchen,” “She orders the same thing when she comes to this restaurant. She’s so OCD” or “My mom makes me clean my closet — so OCD.” 

Contrary to what the popular misuse of the term would have us believe, OCD is not just something that propels people to clean. OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder characterized by, in simple terms, unreasonable, repetitive thoughts or fears that cause anxiety and then a compulsion to act in a manner to attempt to decrease the anxiety.

Take the example of a young boy who felt the need to circle his desk counterclockwise five times before sitting down. He irrationally thought if he did not do this his parents would die. His teachers declined to stop this behavior forcibly, as this would lead to increased anxiety and failure to function. 

There are other themes for obsessions and compulsions. Fear of contamination can lead to elaborate hand washing. Counting stairs, avoiding walking on patterned floors, checking doors and locks multiple times or in multiples of a particular number and starting over if the routine is disrupted, all are associated with OCD. All of these can be time and energy consuming, taking over a person’s life and keeping them from functioning. They may miss work, be late for assignments and isolate from people for fear of judgment. 

There needs to be a change in our approach. Using a serious OCD diagnosis nonchalantly as an adjective trivializes the ordeal these people go through daily. This increases stigma and keeps people from getting the medical help they need.

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