OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is a debilitating illness that involves, in part, racing and obsessive thoughts. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, OCD affects one percent of American adults—that’s over three million adults in the United States alone. Because it impacts millions and has been portrayed in movies, television, and books, the term OCD has become fairly well-known; however, obsessive-compulsive disorder is often misunderstood, leaving people wondering if their racing, obsessive thoughts are OCD.
If someone has racing thoughts or a need for neatness and order, does he/she have OCD? Diagnosing OCD can be complex and requires a medical or mental health professional, but there are telltale signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (both what it is and is not) that can help you decide if your racing, obsessive thoughts might be OCD.
Perhaps it might be helpful to first look at what OCD is not. Because of the misuse of the term, there are a significant number of people who are worried that they have this disorder that is rooted in the brain’s functioning. When I was a high school teacher, I had a surprisingly large number of students over the years fear that they “were” OCD (another misuse of the term; people have OCD, but they aren’t OCD) because they were bothered by messes, disorganization, crooked wall hangings, and misaligned items at the front of the room. Many times, those students needed to straighten and tidy before settling down to work in class. One student was worried because she needed to double-check doors at night to ensure they were locked. Certainly these are indicative of OCD, right?
Actually, not so much. OCD is a brain-based illness that significantly disrupts someone’s life and can make functioning extremely difficult or downright impossible, depending on the severity of the disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder involves thoughts (the obsessive part of OCD) and/or behaviors (the compulsive part of the disorder). OCD includes
- intrusive thoughts (things that pop into your mind uninvited and won’t go away) that frequently race; they can feel like bubbles in a pot of boiling water that continue to form and bounce faster and faster, crashing into each other and continuing on and on and on
- obsessive thoughts; the bubbles in the above example don’t change but instead have the same words and images that race and ricochet in someone’s head
- anxiety; anxiety often causes the intrusive and obsessive thoughts, and the thoughts contribute to more anxiety, which leads to more thoughts, which leads to more anxiety… Anxiety is the fuel that heats the water that makes the bubbles that race and crash
- rituals of behavior that are done to make the obsessions and anxiety disappear; they may or may not relate to the obsessions (anxiety about harm to self or others might lead to checking behavior to ensure safety or it might lead to counting in one’s head, for example)
If you are experiencing obsessive thoughts that are bothersome and are concerned about whether or not you have OCD, consider the severity and the degree to which the thoughts and possible compulsive behaviors are interfering in your life.
- Do your thoughts consume you, making it difficult to think of anything else and get anything done?
- Does your anxiety block your ability to interact at work, home, and in relationships?
- Do you have compulsive behaviors that you feel you must do in order to control the thoughts?
- Do these obsessions and compulsions consume a significant portion of your time? (For example, checking locks two or three times before sleeping isn’t all that disruptive, but staying up for hours and hours because you are repeatedly checking the locks is indeed disruptive.)
If you are having trouble living the life you want to live because of racing, obsessive thoughts and accompanying compulsive behaviors, you might consider talking to your doctor or a therapist. If you’ve already been diagnosed and are in treatment for OCD, there’s a new tool for taking charge of your treatment and getting your life back. It’s an app, and it uses Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) to complement the work you’re doing with a therapist. Learn more and download the free app.