What OCD Really Is

(Photo Source: Getty Images)

(Photo Source: Getty Images)

Kiki Sylvanowicz, Writer

Growing up I was coerced into believing that OCD revolved around the idea of needing everything perfectly clean. 

The misconception that this illness stands for Obsessive Cleaning Disorder seems to be very common. This fails to capture what OCD really is. 

The Facts of  OCD   

OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive disorder and affects a person on many various levels, very few including just the excessive need to keep things organized and clean. 

According to John Hopkins, OCD is an anxiety disorder that revolves around the idea of unreasonable thoughts and fears. People with this disorder have a tendency to use rituals to cope with these intrusive thoughts. 

Obsessions are these irrational thoughts that occur in victims’ heads and compulsions are what they use to cope with them. Since the thoughts are so uncontrollable, reasoning has no help in the matter. This is when people turn to compulsions. 

Some examples of obsessions are the constant fear that one will do something or have done something violent, aggressive, or inappropriate. 

Some examples of compulsions can be the need to do these things. Another aspect of compulsions is counting in one’s head or ticking. Many people with OCD find themselves trying to envision things in their heads in order to calm the obsessions that are taking over their train of thought.

Sometimes these compulsions can even be dangerous and they must ignore them in order to protect themselves and their lives. 

According to Mayo Clinic, some common obsessions are a fear of contamination or dirt, an inability to tolerate uncertainty, needing things orderly, aggressive thoughts about harming oneself or others, unwanted thoughts, and unwanted needs to do certain, inappropriate things.  

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Many things can trigger an obsession or a compulsion, like being touched by someone one does not know or just does not want to be touched by. This includes a handshake or simply brushing past someone as they walk by. 

There are different extremes of this disease. According to St. Luke’s Health, there are five different versions of OCD. Some people can suffer from multiple of them. 

The first one, the most common and recognizable one, is organization. This consists of an obsession with having everything precisely right or symmetrical. This can be seen with people needing everything to be perfectly clean, organized, and balanced. 

The second one is contamination. This revolves around the obsession that non-viral diseases can be spread through touch or close proximity. Another aspect is that everyday things, even thoughts, and words, can contaminate a person. This often leads people to feel ‘unclean’ and constantly feel the need to cleanse themselves. This can result in obsessive compulsions to frequently wash hands, shower constantly, or excessively using hand sanitizer. 

The third one is intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that pop into one’s head at random times with no warning or trigger. These are obsessions based on the idea of hurting someone, or oneself, or that simply thinking about something scary will make it more likely to happen. People usually have to perform actions, like repeating things out loud or mentally, in order to ease these thoughts. 

The fourth one is ruminations. This is very similar to intrusive thoughts but it revolves more around the idea of philosophy, religion, or questions that have no answer. These usually are much less frightening or repulsive. 

The fifth one is checking. This revolves around the idea of a person being afraid to cause harm or damage by being careless. These obsessive compulsions include double, or triple, checking everything; such as locked doors, wallets for credit cards, or stoves being shut off. 

The Effect of OCD on an Individual

Awareness of this disorder is severely lacking. 

I would probably have fallen under this concept of ignorance if it was not for watching someone go through this. 

Obviously, observing and being there for someone who suffers from OCD and actually suffering from OCD are two very different things. But it still gives one great awareness of the true horrors of this disease. 

This disorder affects the mental well-being of an individual to an extreme. 

When an anonymous OCD patient was asked how she would explain the disease, she stated: “It is a struggle, every day. It is not just a cleaning or organization disorder. It is obsessions and compulsions. It is constant intrusive thoughts going through your mind 24/7.” 

This disease affects this individual every day, all day. It is inescapable and a major factor in her everyday life.

I have spent an extreme amount of time around this girl and I can firsthand say, cleaning and organizing are not any of her concerns. She experiences this mentally. She rather suffers from the disease on a more extreme scale. 

She often experiences ticks. These are sometimes psychically, similar to those who suffer from Tourettes. These also can be mental. She pauses and changes all her focus to see certain patterns, numbers, or images in her brain in order to be able to refocus. 

When asked about her specific obsessions and compulsions she shared with me that some are very graphic, violent, or inappropriate, so she would not like to share all of them. 

She was comfortable sharing one she often experiences, “… believing that the air around you is contaminated so you have to hold your breath and not breathe it in.”

As we can see from her example this disease is real and creates a great disturbance to those who have it. 


According to adaa.org, about 1.2% of the US population is affected by this disease. This is about 2.5 million individuals. This disease can run in families, but genetics only partially plays a role in affected individuals. 

Oftentimes the true effect of this disorder is not acknowledged. It is important to realize the depth of this disorder in order to realize what those who suffer from it go through. Always remember, you never really know what is going on in someone’s personal life or mind.