Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not “trendy.” It is not a “cute quirk” and it is not something that should be used to describe common organizational preferences. OCD is not just normal worrying or mild anxiety. The trendy use of the term OCD, and using the term loosely without meaning, is damaging to people’s understanding of the disorder and the stigmas surrounding OCD. Comments that imply that OCD is cute, quirky, or funny are harmful to those suffering from this serious mental illness. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an extreme form of anxiety. It is a disorder that is debilitating and harmful to those who suffer from the illness. As a society, we need to alter the way we talk about OCD.
The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnostic criteria for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder includes a presence of obsessions and compulsions which are time-consuming and cause significant distress or impairment in functioning. Obsessions, or recurrent, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts/sensations, are not just preferences or every day worries. They are intrusive, harmful, and overpowering. Many people with OCD realize that their obsessions may be unreasonable, however, they cannot seem to settle these obsessions with logic or reasoning. These obsessions may cause or result from anxiety, and make the individual feel driven to complete an action repeatedly to reduce or eliminate that anxiety. The repetitive actions and behaviors those with OCD engage in are known as compulsions. Compulsions may help the individual reduce stress or fear about an obsession. Compulsions are not habits or quirks. They are debilitating and often involuntary, excessive, and are not realistically connected to what they are trying to prevent. Obsessions and compulsions take over one’s life and are extremely challenging and distressing to live with.
A common example of someone who is suffering from OCD is an obsession over the fear of contamination. This individual’s obsession is not just about being clean or tidy. Sure, someone without OCD may feel a little icky or gross if they find out the soap has just run out right before washing their hands after using the bathroom. But just because you feel a little anxious that your hands are not clean does not mean you have OCD. For someone suffering from OCD in this scenario, the individual may have an intense obsession over the fear of contamination. This obsession causes them to act in compulsions- they may wash their hands over and over a certain number of times until their anxiety is reduced and they feel better. And they are not just washing their hands two or three times. They are possibly washing them 15 or 16 times or until their hands become raw and are bleeding because their fear of contamination obsession has driven them to complete these compulsions. OCD is not just normal stress or worrying. It is much more than that. When the individual is not able to continue on with daily activities, is in distress, and is in emotional or physical pain, the anxiety doesn’t become normal anymore. It becomes an illness.
The term OCD is misused in many different ways, all of which are harmful to those suffering from the illness. Some phrases that I have personally heard are, “I need my binders to be labeled and color-coded- I’m so OCD about it,” and “I’m a bit OCD when people leave their Christmas decorations up for too long.” Even popular internet news companies misuse the term OCD routinely. Buzzfeed’s “33 Meticulous Cleaning Tricks for the OCD Person Inside You” article is a perfect example of how OCD is used as a trendy adjective that seems to only be a ‘quirky’ part of someone who likes being organized. Not only does the Buzzfeed’s article use OCD as a personality trait, but the article’s opening phrase, “And if you don’t follow these rules, your world will probably fall apart. Just kidding! But OCD or not, you can probably stand to get a little more thorough with your cleaning, while saving time in the long run,” completely belittles and humorizes the distress and debilitation that individuals who actually suffer from OCD feel on a daily basis. People on all different platforms are using the term OCD as a way to describe simple habits, preferences, and personality quirks. However, simple habits, preferences, and personality quirks are all those things are. They last a brief moment and rarely cause the amount of anxiety and debilitation that those living with OCD face. They should have no relation to OCD and OCD should not be used to describe any of these terms.
While the misuse of the term OCD creates many misconceptions about the disorder, it is also extremely harmful to those who suffer from the illness. The misconceptions that sprout from the misuse of the term often alter what people believe or understand those with OCD have to live with. If all that came with OCD was the simple want for everything to be organized, clean, repeated, and put in order the correct way, then it would not be an illness. But OCD is an illness. The misuse of the term indirectly or directly causes people to believe that the disorder is not as serious or debilitating than it actually is. When people form this belief, OCD is not taken as seriously, and people begin to think that it is simply normal, everyday anxiety and worry. We need to understand that this disorder is not just about preferences and desires. People who suffer from OCD do not engage in compulsions simply because they want to. They do so out of fear of what might happen if they don’t. Many people do not correctly understand what OCD actually is because of the wide misuse of the terminology associated with the disorder.
Because this is such a prominent problem, it is vital that society begins to work on ways to fix these misunderstandings and decrease the incorrect use of OCD related terms. We can begin to change this trend by correcting those who misuse OCD terms and by offering different terminology for people without OCD to use instead. Some alternatives to saying, “I’m so OCD about…” include, “I prefer for things to be organized,” and “I like having a routine when I complete this activity,” and “It makes me feel better when I double-check things.”
When you experience someone misuse OCD related terms it is extremely important to explain why they should not use that term, but also to suggest other phrases or terms they can use instead. This way, they not only will be informed, but they also are now able to practice the correct terminology. Beginning to educate, correct, and call out those who frequently misuse OCD and other related terminology brings us one step closer to decreasing the incorrect conceptions and ideas about what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder entails, and how debilitating the mental illness actually is. OCD is not “trendy, cute, or quirky.” It is a mental illness and it should not be stripped of its reality.
Sources: American Psychiatric Association, OCDUK, Buzzfeed