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OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, is an anxiety disorder that affects around 3 per cent of Australians at some point in their life. Because OCD is such a complex condition, and since many people who experience it choose to manage their challenges privately, the public often isn’t seeing the full picture of what OCD is like. You might have heard of OCD in relation to cleanliness and neatness, but there’s a lot more to the condition than that.

1. Everyone experiences OCD differently

People with OCD experience persistent anxious thoughts and fears, otherwise known as obsessions. They try to resolve these obsessions through the use of compulsions, which are behaviours or mental habits that people with OCD use to feel safe or that everything is okay. It’s important to remember that the obsessions and compulsions experienced by people with OCD are diverse and can look very different for everyone. Like the intrusive thoughts many people experience, OCD obsessions can also be taboo – which is why the public’s perception of this condition is often skewed.

Portia, a 24-year-old peer worker at ReachOut PeerChat, has learnt to manage her OCD in the six years since she was diagnosed. ‘Seeing people associate OCD with stereotypes like hand-washing and cleanliness can feel limiting,’ she says.

‘While some people do experience obsessions and compulsions about contamination, that was never my experience. For myself and a lot of people I know with OCD, obsessions focus on moral issues that challenge their identity and their values. They often aren't visible. While cleanliness can be a part of OCD, it's just the tip of the iceberg.’

For just a few examples of the many obsessions and compulsions experienced by people with OCD, check out our article here.

2. Language is important when talking about OCD

Understanding what is meant by ‘obsessions’

Some of the confusion around OCD arises from the word ‘obsession’ having a different meaning in everyday conversation from what it means in the context of talking about OCD.
‘I've heard plenty of people saythey are “obsessed” with things they like, like Harry Styles or Skittles,’ Portia says. ‘This doesn't bother me too much, because “obsession” is a word that we've learnt to use colloquially as well.’

However, this has led to some misunderstandings about OCD and what it’s like for people who experience it. For people like Portia, ‘obsessions’ are troubling and unwanted intrusive thoughts and anxieties, not passions or topics of interest. 

She observes the difference between the two: ‘I've never felt as though I've had a choice in my obsessions. They are intrusive and I can't escape them, even if I wanted to.’

A person can’t be ‘a bit OCD’

‘OCD is a noun, not an adjective. It's not something you are, it's something you have,’ Portia explains. ‘Saying you're “a bit OCD” is like saying you have a bit of a broken arm. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.’

Because of the different ways people understand the word ‘obsession’, the way they talk about OCD can be incorrect and even harmful, Portia says.

‘People often misuse “OCD” as a synonym for “perfectionism”, which they think is a desirable quality to have. While being organised and detail-oriented is a great thing, this isn’t what OCD is. OCD involves an unhealthy level of preoccupation and perfectionism, which can be incredibly painful and distressing. It's not something to strive for.’

This kind of confusion can make people with OCD feel like their experiences are being trivialised or minimised. Even worse, in cases where people use the term ‘OCD’ to negatively describe people who are just fussy or careful, it can feel downright hurtful and derogatory to people with the condition, Portia says.

3. No one knows entirely what causes OCD

The truth is, even mental health professionals don’t know what causes OCD. A few things are thought to play a part, such as genetic and environmental factors, and the structure and chemistry of the brain.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing OCD, it’s not their fault or yours, Portia says.

‘I've heard some people suggesting that they're “a bit OCD” because they grew up with perfectionistic parents or in a very clean home. This doesn't really acknowledge the complexity of OCD as a mental health condition.No amount of strict parenting is going to “give” someone OCD.’

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what causes OCD; what’s important is to think about treatment and recovery.

4. OCD is treatable

Six years after receiving her diagnosis, Portia says that while her obsessive thoughts continue to affect her life, she’s learnt many helpful ways to manage her condition.

‘My life with OCD now is pretty fantastic. OCD used to take up every waking moment of my life, but now it lives in the background. I have the freedom to do anything I want, like work, study, have a relationship, hang out with friends, and it doesn’t get in the way all that often. There are times when my OCD rises back to the surface, like when I’m stressed, but it’s incredibly manageable because I have the tools to keep it at bay. OCD might be a chronic condition, but that doesn’t mean it has to rule your life.’

For more tips on managing OCD using professional help and other forms of support, check out our article here.

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