Being ‘obsessed’ with cleanliness, a particular video game, or a favorite celebrity is common and harmless. But if that obsession affects your ability to go about your day or interferes with your relationships, it may be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m so OCD,” to describe a strong desire for neatness? Despite what stereotypes might suggest that is not a sign of obsessive- compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is more than a desire to a keep a clean house, maintain a schedule, or read everything you can about a favorite celebrity. It’s a chronic and long-lasting mental health condition marked by uncontrollable recurring thoughts or behaviors that must be repeated over and over in order to quell extreme anxiety.
Left untreated, OCD can significantly impact every area of one’s life from school to work to relationships to one’s ability to participate in everyday activities. It can even confine people to their homes for fear they may not be able to perform their rituals or manage their symptoms in other ways.
In other words, there are big differences between simply being obsessive and having OCD — and while both involve obsessive thinking, that’s where the similarities end.
What Does It Mean to Be Obsessive?
Being obsessive is having a fixation on someone or something, whether it’s an idea, person, or physical object, says Gomattie Bell, a licensed mental health counselor at Humantold, a New York City–based therapy practice.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, notes clinical psychologist Jenny Yip, PsyD, who founded the Renewed Freedom Center in Los Angeles to treat people with anxiety disorders, including OCD. If being fixated on a person, a song, or a particular food is pleasurable then it’s not a worry, she explains.
And even when an obsessive thought causes anxiety — often fretting, say, about work or relationship issues — it’s not likely to be a problem unless it’s accompanied by compulsive behaviors like counting, chanting, or repeated hand-washing, says psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, author of Restart: Designing a Healthy Post-Pandemic Life.
What Does It Mean to Have OCD?
OCD involves two key components: obsessions — intrusive and upsetting involuntary thoughts — which can center on any number of topics, including a fear of germs, a need to be perfect, or a dread that something bad will happen to someone you love, Dr. Yip explains.
Those obsessions lead to compulsions — repetitive behaviors done to get relief from those distressing obsessive thoughts. Compulsive behaviors can include checking, washing, counting, repeating, mentally reviewing, or seeking reassurance from other people, Yip notes.
People with OCD are caught in a vicious and exhausting cycle. They feel controlled by their obsessions and the compulsive acts that follow. Even when they know both are unreasonable, even ridiculous, they feel that they cannot stop. Not surprisingly, this often causes difficulties in relationships. Partners, parents, friends, siblings, and others can find it hard to understand the intensity of the inner struggle people with OCD experience, or why it is taking over so much of their lives, Dr. Dodgen-Magee says.
How to Tell the Difference Between Being Obsessive and Having OCD
The largest, most obvious difference between being obsessive and having OCD comes down to whether an obsession interferes with your daily functioning. “If it’s not interfering with your functioning, it’s not OCD,” says Yip.
But when obsessive thoughts begin interrupting a person’s ability to carry out normal activities or prompt compulsive behaviors in response to them, the person may have OCD, says Dodgen-Magee.
Another subtle but significant difference is that the sense of control over these thoughts and the severity of their obsessions is different for people with OCD compared with those without it. For example, obsessions are not anxiety-provoking and feel easier to manage for someone who is merely obsessive or detailed-oriented. Often, this just feels like part of their personality, and they may even like this aspect of themselves.
But people with OCD typically have a very different experience. They’re usually very bothered by their obsessive thoughts and would prefer not to have them but find them very difficult to silence.
Whether an obsession is paired with a compulsion is also a key difference between obsessiveness and OCD. Bell suggests trying to identify whether there is a compulsive behavior that occurs in conjunction with or in response to an obsessive thought. She adds that it’s wise to seek professional support from a psychotherapist or psychiatrist if compulsions take up more than one hour of your time each day and cause you significant distress at work or in your social life.
“If your everyday life is interrupted by your thoughts or behaviors for two weeks or more, if the compulsive behaviors that ‘quiet’ the obsessions are potentially harmful to you, or you are at risk of harming yourself, you should seek professional help,” adds Dodgen-Magee.
Coping Tips That Can Help You Manage Both
Whether you’re dealing with a simple but annoying fixation or full-blown OCD, Bell’s No. 1 recommendation is to seek professional help if you’re experiencing any distress so you can learn develop positive coping skills for what you’re experiencing.
Seeing a therapist trained in treating OCD and exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can be particularly helpful, says Yip. In an ERP session, a person confronts their triggers (sources of anxiety) and is taught how to consciously avoid giving into the urges or compulsive behaviors that follow.
Other therapeutic interventions that can help are:
- Mindfulness meditation, a stress-relieving strategy that involves deep breathing and techniques for slowing down racing thoughts, according to Mayo Clinic
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, a form of therapy focused on helping to change the thinking and behavioral patterns behind obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a type of psychotherapy that uses acceptance of negative thoughts as a way to manage them, per the International OCD Foundation
- Medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like escitalopram (Lexapro) and venlafaxine (Effexor), which can reduce symptoms, according to the International OCD Foundation
Grounding techniques — which can be used nearly anytime and anywhere — are another excellent for managing both obsessive thoughts and OCD tendencies, Bell says. Two examples: “The 5-4-3-2-1 method works by forcing you to refocus your attention. Name five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell and one thing you taste,” Bell explains. “Another grounding technique that I find works well is naming objects by categories: ice cream flavors, colors, football teams.”
Article by: Obsessiveness or OCD? How to Tell the Difference | Everyday Health
Images : Photo by Alex Green from Pexels