You’ve said it when explaining how you can’t get work done if your room’s messy. Your work wife has used it to explain why her to-do list is color coordinated based on priority. If we had to guess, we’d say the term latched onto the vernacular somewhere between As Good As It Gets and MTV’s True Life. But saying “I’m so OCD,” when you don’t have that diagnosis is actually problematic. As mental health has taken center stage in recent years, it’s time to reevaluate and truly put some thought into the way we view obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), because it’s way more than a throwaway term to describe quirky behavior. Let’s take a deep dive into what the condition is and why we need to stop using the term OCD so casually.

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So, what exactly is obsessive compulsive disorder?

The International OCD Foundation defines the illness as, “A mental health disorder that occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.” That means your personal “obsession” with loading the dishwasher a specific way doesn’t make the cut.

I am meticulous about certain things, does that mean I have OCD?

The short answer is no. According to Ren Krinick, Ph.D. and licensed psychologist at Northwell Health OCD Center, obsessions and compulsions have to get to the point where they are affecting your daily life before they can be fully diagnosed as OCD. “Obsessions and compulsions have to be time-consuming, distressing and—as is the case with any mental health condition—impacting functioning.”

Translation: Your habit of making people put their glasses on a coaster, your need to have mugs facing a particular direction in the cabinet, or the need to organize your books in a specific order do not (necessarily) count as OCD. When it gets to the point where your work, social life and self-care are affected and you can’t get through a day without ruminating on a specific issue (and no, it’s not always about organization), then it’s diagnostic and pathological and you need to see a doctor, says Krinick.

Dr. Krinick also revealed that there are four major thinking styles found in people with OCD that aren’t present in those who don’t:

1. Need for certainty: This thinking style is characterized by someone’s need for everything to be clear and certain about a scenario before they feel safe. “The reality of life is that we never get true certainty, but the person with OCD can’t really tolerate that around certain things.”

2. Exaggerated fears: Where people with OCD perceive a catastrophic outcome of events no matter how unlikely the odds are. “An example of an exaggerated fear is thinking you can get an STD from a toilet seat,” explained Dr. Krinick. “For most people, because it’s so unlikely, it’s not going to bother them. But for people with OCD, if that’s what they’re worried about, that miniscule possibility is exaggerated to the point where they’ll either avoid going to the bathroom altogether or they’ll clean the toilet seat excessively—just in case.”

3. Exaggerated sense of personal responsibility: The thinking style where a person with OCD feels as though they have to do a lot of checking or complete a lot of rituals in order to prevent bad things from happening.

“A person with OCD may think if they don’t remind their spouse to take a pill, they’d be responsible for the spouse’s death. The logic goes out the window and the person with OCD feels like if they don’t do this, then something bad is going to happen.”

4. Belief that compulsion will calm them down. A person with this thinking style feels like doing a compulsion—i.e. saying a prayer, or washing their hands—will mitigate their anxiety.

How does OCD differ from other stress-induced behavioral patterns?

If you find yourself doing some extra cleaning when you have guests over or you’re meticulous about your Post-It arrangement ahead of a big deadline, it may just be a matter of picking up particular preferences in high-stress situations in order to get a sense of control. Not OCD. Again, it goes back to functionality and whether or not you have persistent feelings of distress, says Dr. Krinick.

Another big difference between a repetitive habit problem or tic problem, versus OCD is in the treatment doctors recommend. Said Krinick, “If someone is presenting with a bad habit issue—biting nails, ripping skin, pulling hair—or a type of tic, we would recommend habit reversal therapy.”

For OCD, however, treatment is a bit different because doctors are trying to get the patient to dissociate with the compulsion. Krinick continued, “What we do for OCD is exposure and response prevention where we create a scenario, and the person has to face their fear or do the thing they don’t like, but then withhold from compulsing, in a safe environment.” The goal over time is to teach the person suffering from OCD that there is another way of dealing with anxiety besides turning to compulsions.

Why should we stop throwing the term OCD around casually?

Because it is as equally debilitating as other mental health illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia or eating disorders. Our MTV-informed viewing of obsessive-compulsive disorder makes it so we don’t see enough nuanced versions of the condition. The fact of the matter is, roughly 2 to 3 million adults in the United States have OCD and 500,000 kids and teens also suffer from it. Throwing the term around nonchalantly reduces its seriousness and further removes us from understanding it.

On top of that, linking the condition to one set of behaviors can also be discouraging to people who have the disorder in other forms. “Stigmas and beliefs about what OCD looks like are probably most impactful to people with OCD,” Krinick shares. “You can have OCD with any kind of theme to it. There’s a misconception that there are particular themes that constitute OCD and if that’s not your theme, then you have some other problem. [In reality] a person who obsesses over sexually taboo themes can have OCD just like the person who obsesses over germs.”

So, what should I say instead?

We all have preferences and can be particular about the way we want things done. We may even have tics and compulsions. This doesn't mean you actually have OCD. So when you feel the need to comment on your behavior, instead of saying “I'm so OCD," try something like:

  • "I"m such a perfectionist."
  • "I can get a little in my head about things like this."
  • "Sometimes my anxiety shows up in my need to organize things."
  • "Sometimes, when I feel like things aren't in my control, I behave like this."
  • "This ritual helps calm me down."

These can help you express and share your feelings about your own experience without bringing in the weight of an entire mental health condition into the mix.

And hey, we can all agree that sticky, dried-out cup rings on the table aren’t a good look, right?

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