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What OCD is, and what it isn’t

In our own ways, we all have a desire for order, cleanliness and assurance. We have specific ways that we like to do things and may even become bothered when these usual practices don’t go our way. We even sometimes will call ourselves “OCD” for liking things a certain way.

Because we are all constantly monitoring our experiences and making decisions about what to do next, it is easy to think that those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are merely a more extreme version of us when we want things clean and orderly. However, OCD is not the opposite of being a slob. It is a thinking and behaving aberration that has roots in brain dysfunction, deviations in our reward-punishment system and our thoughts and fears.

Being neat, organized or clean are qualities that some choose to focus on as lifestyle habits. The kind of life that OCD imposes on people is undesired and all-consuming. We will look at what is and what isn’t OCD, discussing what sets it apart from simply being overly particular.


What is OCD?

There are many differences between those with obsessive-compulsive disorder and those who are merely neat, very particular, mostly regimented or over-focused. However, one such difference is that their brain functions are substantially different.

Imagine knowing that something you are doing or thinking is wrong, but being unable to stop yourself from doing or thinking it. This is part of the everyday experience of those with OCD. OCD is usually traced to a disruption in the part of the brain that notices when things we think or do are off-task, unusual or harmful and then signals us to stop. Those with OCD do not receive the same stop signals even though they “know” their thoughts and behaviors are unusual.

The issue goes even deeper. People with OCD are extorted by their own mind to perform acts or think thoughts they know are wrong. Below are some compulsions people with OCD may exhibit and examples of these compulsions:

  • Extremely concerned with germs
    • Obsessively washing your hands
    • Constantly fearing that you will be contaminated
    • Constantly fearing that you will contaminate others
  • Checking things repeatedly
    • Having to unplug every outlet in your house before you leave home, and coming right back home to make sure once more that you did
    • Locking all the doors in your house several times in a row
    • Flipping the light switch on and off multiple times whenever you enter a room
    • Constantly counting things
  • Repeating phrases
    • Repeating whole sentences before you can move onto the next
    • Saying a certain phrase every time you walk through a door
    • Thinking certain lines of songs on repeat
  • Organizing
    • Not being able to sleep until everything in your room is in a perfect spot
    • Hoarding

Whatever compulsions a person with OCD faces, they do not feel at peace until they give into them. And even when they do give in, the respite they experience is brief.


What isn’t OCD?

Many people think of OCD as just having the somewhat excessive need to be orderly, clean and organized. While there is some validity to this, and some people with OCD are concerned with these things, some are actually unorganized and unorderly – it doesn’t look exactly the same for everyone.

Beyond people’s misunderstandings about what those with OCD are like, people often attribute their own quirks and specifications to mild OCD. We can have preferred ways of doing things and be highly organized and particular without having OCD. There are many examples of this:

  • Keeping your room very clean and organized at all times
  • Keeping only specific things stored in specific containers
  • Putting certain items, like shoes, in the same spot every day
  • Feeling like you have to drive the same way to work every day
  • Being meticulous when feeding others, making sure everyone has the exact same amount

It is not uncommon for people without OCD to say phrases like, “I’m just so OCD about this!” but this demonstrates a weak understanding of the disorder. While people with OCD do experience compulsions specific to them, being “OCD about” one thing is not a symptom. Making statements such as these can lead to further misunderstandings about the disorder. While these feelings can help you empathize with people who do have OCD, they can also minimize its severity.


Understanding what OCD is, and what it isn’t, helps you to be more supportive of those who deal with it daily. If you feel that you or someone you know are experiencing OCD-related challenges, Centerstone is here for you. Call us today at 1-877-HOPE123 (877-467-3123) to get connected to care. For more information about OCD, including treatment options, click here.


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