I’ve heard many people say something along the lines of “I’m a bit OCD”.
And the reality is, that most people do “have a bit” of OCD.
But there’s a big difference between having some (in the majority of cases, minor) obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and having a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder; and it’s more important than most people realise to understand this difference and not confuse the two.
On the one hand, obsessive compulsive traits can be thought of in the same way as any other personality traits – characteristics such as extroversion or introversion, agreeableness or likeability, conscientiousness or neuroticism (to name just a few).
We all have these traits, and we all sit along the continuum on which each of them exists; so rather than having them or not having them, we all have some of them to a greater or lesser extent.
Another point worth noting is that they can all be quite helpful in different ways, even those traits that seem or are generally considered to be “negative”. Neuroticism, or a tendency to worry and experience anxiety, for example, is generally considered to be an undesirable trait yet those who possess it at moderate or even high levels can perform better in certain tasks and in specific professions (e.g. those where an element of risk assessment and analytical thinking is required).
Obsessive compulsive traits are similar; although mostly thought to be dysfunctional, in some contexts they can be very useful and they can even enhance performance. One very famous example is Rafael Nadal, one of the world’s greatest tennis players. Nadal’s pre-point rituals involve a complex array of behaviours that might, to some, seem bizarre. Yet in interviews he’s spoken about how they help him focus and concentrate, and one only needs to look at his success to determine that for him, within the context in which he mostly operates, they’re far from problematic.
So, there are undoubtedly situations where obsessive compulsive behaviours can be useful and even performance enhancing for some people.
On the other hand, however, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (as opposed to obsessive compulsive traits) is a highly distressing and debilitating syndrome characterised by the following:
Repeated thoughts or images, of germs or contamination, things that are out of order, or of taboo topics such as sex or religion, that cause high levels of anxiety
Repetitive behaviours, enacted in response to the aforementioned thoughts and worries, such as hand washing or cleaning, checking or tidying, or counting
The feeling that these thoughts and the associated urges are beyond control
Further, although many will experience something similar to that described above, from time to time and mostly in less intense forms, for a diagnosis of OCD the person must spend at least an hour each day worrying about these thoughts, they must not gain any pleasure from the behaviours, and the totality of the experience must have lasted for more than 2 weeks and caused significant dysfunction in their personal, social and/or occupational life.
As distressing as OCD can be, however, it’s very important to note that help is available and prospects for sufferers can be good. A range of proven treatments exist most notably:
Medications: such as the antidepressants, and
Psychological therapy, especially Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBD): specifically, exposure and response prevention has several decades of empirical support. At the risk of over-simplifying, this involves confronting the anxiety provoking thoughts and fears, without enacting the associated behaviours or compulsions. When conducted under professional supervision and in a controlled manner, most people find their distress diminishes significantly over time
In summary, then, if you have mild to moderate levels of obsessive compulsive traits then you may well be able to find productive and constructive ways to use them well in your life. If, however, you have more intensive and more highly distressing levels of OCD then you’d be well advised to seek professional help via your local doctor and/or finding an appropriately qualified and experienced clinical psychologist.