OCD - What it is Not

 Vijai P.Sharma, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist

This is the sixth article in a series of eight on obsessive-compulsive disorder.

All of us, now and then, forget if we turned off the stove or have taken the plug out for that hair dryer or iron.  We may also recheck the door locks when on the evening news we hear about an escaped convict reported to be in our town and not yet apprehended.  Those are good safety measures and do not constitute an obsessive compulsive disorder.  Doing it once or twice is not a problem.  Doing it over and over again may mean there is too much on our minds or that something or somebody is bothering us more than usual, or it may well be OCD.

There is a "one-hour rule" for OCD.  That is, when obsessions and/or compulsions consume more than an hour of your day.  The problem is when it becomes excessively time-consuming, or when it considerably interferes with a person's normal routine, work or family life.  It is not an OCD if it is within the norms of one's culture or appropriate for specific circumstances.  Thus, a repeated perm or makeup may be highly time consuming and you may think it is vanity, but it is not OCD.

We all wash our hands once, but I wash them twice.  Do I have an OCD?  Wait till you hear this.  The cleanliness training I received from my folks involved washing hands three times, every time.  Soap was not introduced in the part of the world in which I was raised; so we washed our hands with a special mud.  It made good hygienic sense.  Since I use soap now, I wash them twice instead of thrice.  I think I have made some progress.  I can stop myself after the first wash, but I would feel I am revenging on my heritage.  So I think of the surgeons, who before going to the operating room, finish half of the liquid soap bottle, work up this rich lather, and wash it up to their elbows.  I like to think I am doing much better than the surgeons (only in this department, though.)

Worrying, although it is thinking about the same thing over and over again, is not an obsession itself.  Worry is an excessive concern about a real-life situation, for example, about examinations approaching, an illness, losing a job, etc.

Obsessions do not typically involve a real-life problem and are not seen as appropriate by the individual.  For example, obsessional thoughts about breaking a glass on the floor which might then injure family members is not a serious matter and certainly not deserving, to such an extent, time-consuming thoughts and compulsions about glass-related injuries.  Normally, one would just be cautious when handling glass objects.  Excessive worrying is a part of anxiety and needs to be treated as an anxiety disorder rather than an OCD.

Brooding over the past, perhaps over what someone said or did or didn't do, is also thinking over and over again about the same thing, but is not an OCD.  Such a brooding may be part of a depressive condition.  "Being obsessed with the past" is a conversational term, but it is not an OCD in the clinical sense.

Pathological gambling, or any addictive behavior for that matter, such as a chemical addiction, may involve performing a repetitive behavior over and over again.  This may be construed as a "compulsive" behavior.  Similarly, one is "obsessed" with the object of addiction.  There is a school of thought in mental health science that claims that addictions are a variation of OCD.  Many OCD sufferers do turn to chemical abuse and one can see that both conditions, OCD and the chemical addiction can be present side by side.  However, there is an important difference between the addictions and the OCD, and this is that while addictive behaviors lead to a "high" or an experience of pleasure, the compulsive behaviors of OCD bring no such pleasurable experience, merely a relief from discomfort.

Striving for excellence is not perfectionism, just as preparing in advance for a test is not worrying.  Preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism and control are related to but are not necessarily OCD behavior.  A prim and trim lady, immaculately dress, came to a gathering, talking and walking extremely gracefully.  A man totally enchanted by her grace went up to her and asked, "Are you a virtuous lady?"  She answered, "Yes, but I am not fanatic about it."

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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