Why you’re likely not ‘so OCD’: an underlying look at the mental disorder

How many times have you heard “I like things organized! I’m so OCD!” as if the acronym is a cute trait to flaunt around? Actually, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a serious mental illness in which one obsesses over their thoughts while carrying out ‘compulsions’ to quell their anxiety. Currently, 2 percent of Americans suffer from it — including me.

So, what is OCD exactly? “Beyond OCD” states “obsessions are persistent and uncontrollable thoughts … that are intrusive.”  One will carry out an action, called a ‘compulsion,’ to feel relieved. As a personal example, my OCD theme is integrity, based on a religious fear of not being honest enough before God.

I’ll obsess over my honesty, followed by compulsions to ‘confess’ to others to ensure I have done the right thing and receive disciplinary action if needed. As a result, my social, academic and professional lives have been seriously affected by OCD.

Riley Mott, a transfer junior majoring in environmental science, opened up to his reality with the illness. “My version of OCD makes simple, everyday things very challenging to get through … Anxieties can pop up out of nowhere, putting them in anxious situations.”

Dr. Charles Pittenger, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and the Director of the Yale OCD Clinic, studies the disorder extensively at Yale University and explained his research and insight about the disorder. He explained that the short-term goal is to use existing treatments to aid sufferers.

As for the long-term goal, “We seek to develop new insights into the fundamental causes, brain biology and psychological imbalances that underlie OCD because we believe that such insights will pave the way to new strategies,” Pittenger said.

Through the aid of brain scans, Pittenger explains how brains with OCD work differently than ones without the disorder. “There’s a specific circuitry in the brain involving regions of the cortex and of the basal ganglia that are more active in individuals with OCD than in control individuals,” he said. When symptoms flare, these structures become hyperactive. With treatment, however, these brain areas can be calmed down.

Pittenger mentioned strategies to keep the OCD at bay including taking care of your physical and mental health, keeping yourself busy and not giving in to your compulsions. “When the obsessive thoughts come, the goal should be to accept their existence and let them pass,” Pittenger said. “Fighting them is natural, but it perversely gives them more strength.”

So how do you know if you suffer from this disorder? If you’re obsessing over thoughts for a good chunk of time while carrying out an action that relieves anxiety, then it might be OCD. Meanwhile, if you’re arranging desk items because you like things neat and have no anxiety over the desk’s organization, then you’re likely not OCD. Of course, if you’re not entirely sure, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a counselor so they can diagnose you.

If you do have the disorder, medication is an option to balance your brain chemistry, which reduces anxiety. For example, I’ve noticed a dramatic improvement in my thought processes to the point where some days I forget I have OCD. Just remember that different medications work differently for everyone, so be patient in finding the right drug and dosage. According to the International OCD Foundation, it takes 10-12 weeks of medication to notice improvement.

After careful consideration, you may realize you don’t have OCD and that you should stop using the acronym because it stigmatizes sufferers. However, you can be a great support system for those who have the illness. Pittenger encourages people to “be a friend; accept that the sufferer is having difficulties, and support them.” At the same time, Pittenger warns that supporters do not accommodate their compulsions, which strengthens the OCD.

The Counseling Center at UMBC is a great resource for anyone going through a mental storm. Just remember, your mental health does not define you and it does get better. Since being diagnosed with OCD in 2018, I’ve come far with my mental health. With counseling, medication and a support system, I’ve made great improvements. Even with flare-ups, these elements of treatment have made me felt like anxiety doesn’t bother me.