“I’m so OCD”

The damaging implications of misusing psychiatric terminology

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Kaitlyn butler

OCD is not just an a thing to say, it is a reality for many.

“I’m so OCD about cleaning my room.” 

“You just gave me a panic attack.”

“That triggered my anxiety.”

Without context, it’s hard to say whether these statements are used seriously or hyperbolically. But it should not be this way–anxiety disorders are not a joke. Mental illness is not a joke. Unless your symptoms, when clinically evaluated, would meet the medical criteria to be considered disordered, your stress or neatness does not stem from an anxiety disorder. And to your benefit.

Do not take debilitating mental/emotional disorders and downplay their gravity to dramatize your circumstances.

As a patient diagnosed with generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I cannot count the number of times I have felt belittled by insensitive remarks such as, “Extended exam time because of anxiety? I should just pretend to freak out,” or the use of OCD as an adjective synonymous to tidy, organized, or diligent.

Why? Because the obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by “recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations (obsessions) that make [people] feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions),” both of which “significantly interfere with [their] daily activities and social interactions” (“What Is OCD?”). Obsessions include hygiene, order, symmetry, religious purity, and intrusive violent thoughts. Compulsions do include cleaning and arranging, as well as checking, repeating, counting, and mental compulsions, such as saying a prayer or certain phrases. The obsessive-compulsive cycle is ceaseless and exhausting. 

And according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) differs from healthy levels of stress when the patient finds it unable to control “persistent and excessive worry” about multiple stressors for at least six months, accompanied by symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, sleep trouble, difficulty in concentration, and muscle tension. Anxiety’s grip thus extends beyond mental health and manifests itself physically. PTSD and social anxiety disorder, other forms of anxiety, also share similar symptoms brought about by uncontrollable worry.                                                                                                                

And panic attacks? The ADAA states that symptoms include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, numbness/tingling, and depersonalization, among others. In order to clinically qualify as a panic attack, at least four of the thirteen symptoms must have been present. Note that symptoms often resemble those of a heart attack, often leading sufferers to seek emergency medical aid in fear of losing their life. 

Sure, at least we as a society have taken steps to destigmatize mental illness, validate patients, and provide them with support. But de-stigmatization does not equate to normalization. We pathologize everyday circumstances and, in doing so, disregard how seriously anxiety disorders affect people–18.1% of the population each year, for that matter, as reported by the ADAA.

Anxiety disorders are debilitating. To be trapped in the cycle of scrubbing my hands raw, counting my steps, hyperventilating, and feeling fatigued regardless of how much I sleep–it is debilitating. 

So let’s work to bring awareness to the reality of anxiety disorders, spread correct information, and validate those who battle their mind, day in and day out. Just as anxiety and OCD are so much more than cleanliness and nerves, sufferers are so much more than patients with an illness. Their demons are not their adjectives.