The Danger of “I’m so OCD!”

Blog Award

The following post is the second in our series of entries submitted for the 1st Annual Lions Talk Science Blog Award. This piece is by Caitlin Millett, a 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program.

Image credit: Alan Levine (Flickr)

Image credit: Alan Levine (Flickr)

Have you ever heard a friend exclaim “I’m being so OCD right now!” when they can’t help but double check for their house keys before slamming the front door? It seems that this phrase has become a cultural colloquialism, it is used so often.

Luckily, most people who say “I am so OCD!” do not, in fact, have a debilitating anxiety disorder marked by uncontrollable obsessive thoughts and behavioral compulsions, the hallmark features of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Though the term obsessive-compulsive is often misattributed to those of us who are perhaps too meticulous, prone to anxiety, or a combination thereof, we as a society have familiarized ourselves with the term through our exposure to literature and media to the extent that it is now a part of our lexicon.

For example, recalling the days of junior high school can bring back memories of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and her compulsive hand washing:

Doctor: What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands.

 Gentlewoman: It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands: I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.

Lady Macbeth: Yet here’s a spot…”

In OCD, which affects approximately 2.2 million Americans, obsessive thoughts are not protective or useful- they can be uncontrollable, frightening and disturbing. Obsessions are thoughts that recur and persist despite efforts to ignore or confront them. Obsessions may involve a preoccupation with sexual, violent or religious thoughts, relationship-related obsessions, or a concern over dirt and germs.

The compulsive behaviors which accompany obsessive thoughts are a compensatory mechanism meant to bring comfort and control back to the individual; however, these behaviors invariably cause more anxiety than they alleviate. Compulsions may include excessive washing or cleaning, hoarding, aversion to particular numbers, repeated checking and nervous rituals (e.g., opening and closing a door a certain number of times before entering or leaving a room). Clearly, if the symptoms of OCD are severe enough, they can hinder normal functioning by preventing a person from working or engaging in normal social interactions.

800px-OCD_handwash

Image credit: Lars Klintwall Malmqvist (Wikimedia Commons)

One notable example of extreme compulsive behaviors is in the case of the innovative Howard Hughes. It is known that in Hughes’ later years his OCD in part lead him to live as a recluse. Interestingly, because of his amassed wealth, he was able to live out his compulsions vicariously through his work staff. Hughes wrote memos delineating how his staff should perform certain tasks,exemplifying the extent to which OCD can control one’s behavior:

[On opening a can of food:]

The man in charge turns the valve in the bathtub on, using his bare hands to do so… He then takes one of the brushes, and, using one of two special bars of soap, creates a good lather and then scrubs the can from a point two inches below the top of the can. He should first soak and remove the label, and then brush the cylindrical part of the can over and over until all particles of dust, pieces of paper label, and, in general, all sources of contamination have been removed…”

Clearly, there is a true distinction between the general scrupulousness of double checking that the stove is off and the doors are locked, and the mental illness that is OCD. And so the next time you hear someone say “I’m being so OCD right now!” you can rebut: “You may not have a mental illness, but you are, in fact, quite meticulous!”

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