“You’re so OCD!” “Stop acting OCD!” Why are you going all OCD on me?” You’ve probably used—or heard a friend use—the term OCD plenty of times. The acronym has worked its way into everyday language as a way to describe a person who unnecessarily obsesses over the details in life. But while the term is often used in a joking manner—and some OCD behaviors are truly funny from an outsider’s perspective—for a person struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the situation can be anything but amusing. The clinical condition affects one in every 200 adolescents, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and can lead to troubling thoughts and behaviors that hinder a person’s ability to have a normal life. What exactly is OCD, and how would you know if you or a friend is affected by the disorder? Get your answers, here.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety-driven condition that leads to obsessions and compulsions. The obsessions are unwanted thoughts, images, and impulses that creep into your mind—even when you try to ignore them. Those thoughts may be violent, scary, or sexual, but what they have in common is an inability to shake.
Compulsions are behaviors that you feel the need to repeat frequently, like washing your hands, checking to make sure you turned off a light, or organizing your desk. They may also be rituals that you can’t help but perform, such as avoiding the cracks on the sidewalk when walking to school. Often, people believe that if they don’t complete the ritual, something bad will happen to them or someone they know, like getting sick or dying.
“Frequently, a compulsive behavior is a way to relieve some unrelated distress,” says Kashmira Rustomji, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Maybe you’re anxious about a certain class, for instance, and shifting your focus to the sidewalk cracks on the way to school helps distract your mind. The problem is that as long as your classroom stress persists, so does the compulsive need to avoid the cracks, even though the two events are clearly unrelated.
Do I have OCD?
While it’s true that people with OCD obsess over things such as keeping their bedroom clean or arranged in a specific way, freaking out about a messy room does not automatically qualify you as having this disorder. In fact, being a neat, tidy person is often a positive trait, since it helps keep you organized (no lost homework!). For instance, if you feel anxious when your sister dumps a pile of laundry on your floor, that’s not OCD. But if you continue to feel in stressed until every last item is hung in your closet or put away on your shelves to the extent you cannot leave your room or do anything else until the situation is resolved, OCD might be a factor.
What’s wrong with having OCD?
The behaviors described in this article might sound quirky, but not that serious. What’s so bad about avoiding cracks, right? The thing is, obsessive-compulsive disorder can start to mess with your life in a negative way. For example, feeling compelled to perform rituals like washing your hands for 20 minutes or re-making your bed three times every morning can make you late for school, and the anxiety that accompanies these behaviors may make it difficult for you to have fun when hanging out with friends or family. If left untreated, there’s a chance that your OCD symptoms will worsen over time and stay with you as you get older, says Jennifer Park, Ph.D., an adolescent psychologist at Stanford Children’s Health. In the worst-case scenario, some people even have trouble leaving their house because of the compulsion to keep repeating certain behaviors.
Can OCD be cured?
While OCD may never disappear entirely, the great news is that there are very effective treatment strategies that can control the disorder and give you back your life. If you believe that you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, talk to a trusted adult, whether that’s a parent, school counselor, rabbi, or youth group leader. They’ll be able to help connect you with a professional who can help treat the disorder.
Typically, experts use two treatment methods. The first, called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), helps to change thought patterns. For example, if you frequently deal with disturbing mental images, a therapist will show you how to replace that thought with something soothing—a beach scene, maybe.
The other treatment method, called exposure and response prevention (ERP), slowly re-introduces you to the source of your anxiety so that you learn how to handle it. If you stress out about touching public restroom door handles, for example, the first step of ERP may be having a friend touch the door handle and then touch your arm with the same hand. Eventually, you’ll work up to touching the door handle yourself.
“You have to work hard in therapy to ease OCD, but these treatments teach you the coping mechanisms you need to manage the symptoms,” says Dr. Park. If CBT and ERP alone don’t properly manage your symptoms, a doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication.
If you have OCD, it may seem impossible to escape the disorder, but don’t give up. Armed with the right tools, you’ll be able to free yourself from the anxiety and stress and get your life back on a healthy track.
Special thanks to our experts:
Kashmira Rustomji, M.D., MPH , child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center
Jennifer Park, adolescent psychologist, Stanford Children’s Health