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OCD tendencies vs. OCD: Here's how to distinguish between the two

Main Line Health January 29, 2021 Behavioral Health

By: Erin O'Brien; clinical supervisor at the Mirmont Outpatient Center in Broomall, part of Main Line Health

As a child I can recall obsessively rewriting my homework until it was “perfect,” a word that would become attached to virtually any activity or task I attempted to complete. I recall the tightness in my chest as I tried to accept that my work or actions might not be perfect but that nothing catastrophic would happen as a result. My family thought that my behaviors were just cute childhood quirks. It wasn’t until I was older that I was formally diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and finally had answers to some of the struggles I had experienced in my youth. I also learned that OCD has genetic components and that some of my family members had also struggled with this disorder. 

OCD tendencies vs. OCD: No such thing as ‘a little OCD’

When you hear people joke, “I’m so OCD,” chances are they’re probably not OCD and have no idea how debilitating the disorder can be. One of the biggest misconceptions about OCD is that it’s mostly related to being obsessive about cleanliness or germs. While some with OCD are hyper-focused on cleanliness, people with OCD may also repetitively count things, or go to great lengths to avoid becoming sick, encounter things that they fear, and may even try preventing themselves from having certain thoughts. 

OCD affects 2.2 million adults in the United States each year.

So how do you know if it’s OCD tendencies vs. OCD, the full-blown disorder? First of all, it’s perfectly normal when we’re under stress or have concerns about loved ones or paying bills for our thoughts to consume us or to be more distracted by repetitive thoughts. OCD, however, is characterized by “obsessions,” which the dictionary defines as thoughts and ideas that are constantly preoccupying or intruding upon the mind; and “compulsions,” which are irresistible urges to behave in ways you don’t necessarily want to.

An OCD diagnosis has to meet certain criteria, which are evaluated according to how much these obsessions and compulsions:

  • Take up excessive amounts of time (an hour or more each day)
  • Cause significant concern or distress (the person having them wishes they would go away)
  • Get in the way of daily living, like going to work or school, being social, staying connected with family and having a normal routine

For those with OCD, it’s often a daily struggle to manage overwhelming thoughts that never seem to stop and are so disruptive it’s hard to focus on much else. The National Institute of Mental Health provides more information on the signs and symptoms of OCD and who’s most at risk for this disorder.

OCD treatment and recovery 

While OCD is a chronic condition, it can be treated through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. CBT involves working with a mental health therapist to distinguish negative patterns of thinking that affect your response to life. Through CBT and with guidance from your therapist, you can begin to see challenging areas more clearly and come up with coping mechanisms that feel right for you. Exposure therapy is a type of CBT sometimes used to help people with fears and phobias confront the very things they are afraid of in a safe, secure environment with a trained therapist.

Relaxation techniques are one of several holistic approaches to OCD along with meditation and anything that calms the mind and body. There are also medications, when appropriate that are specifically designed to minimize the negative effects of OCD.

Through my own treatment, I learned to manage and challenge the obsessive thoughts. Getting treatment for OCD has helped to shape my work as a therapist and make me more empathetic and compassionate for those with this disorder. Living with OCD doesn’t have to be a barrier to a happy life and it is absolutely possible to get a handle on the thoughts that plague you. 

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health issues, Mirmont Outpatient Center offers a variety of structured, personalized treatment programs. Reach out to learn more. Start the road to recovery today. Call us at 1.888.CARE.898 (227.3898) to schedule a confidential appointment and ask any questions. Or, use our secure online form to email us.