Though the intrusive, unwanted thoughts of obsessive-compulsive disorder have to be extremely intense for someone to be diagnosed with OCD, a new study shows that 94 percent of people experience such symptoms in their daily lives. That is, being somewhat OCD is remarkably common.
If you ever feel like you need to wash your hands multiple times, or have a constant fear of something horrible happening, you may experience OCD symptoms without actually having the severe form of the disorder. Only about 2.2 million Americans over the age of 18 have a diagnosed form of OCD, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That is equivalent to about one percent of the population of American adults.
How can there be such a wide gap between those who experience OCD symptoms and those who are diagnosed with it? While the majority of people experience these kinds of unwanted thoughts, it’s how you cope with them that makes the difference, the authors of the study claim. “This study shows that it’s not the unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are the problem — it’s what you make of those thoughts,” Adam Radomsky, psychology professor at Concordia University and an author of the study, said in a press release. “And that’s at the heart of our cognitive and behavioral interventions for helping people overcome OCD.”
In order to get a good group of subjects, the researchers tested 777 university students across 13 different countries and six continents — including the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Iran, Israel, Spain, and Turkey. The researchers asked the participants whether they had experienced such intrusive thoughts during the past three months. Some of the “intrusions” could include a persistent worry, an image of a house on fire, or a sudden desire to be aggressive against someone.
“Confirming that these thoughts are extremely common helps us reassure patients who may think that they are very different from everybody else,” Radomsky said in the press release. “For instance, most people who have an intrusive thought about jumping off a balcony or a metro platform would tell themselves that it’s a strange or silly thing to think, whereas a person with OCD may worry that the thought means they’re suicidal. OCD patients experience these thoughts more often and are more upset by them, but the thoughts themselves seem to be indistinguishable from those occurring in the general population.”
Many people struggling with OCD often feel as though they are the only ones, making them feel isolated and alone. Because there isn’t much public awareness of OCD, making it even harder for people to cope and find help for their condition. Typically, people with OCD work with therapists, cognitive behavior therapy, and medications to help them ease their symptoms and get to the root of their issues.
Otherwise, for people who have milder forms of OCD, self-help can assist in overcoming intrusive thoughts. (Read this help guide for a few tips.)
Common obsessions include the fear of being responsible for causing harm on someone else, having unwanted sexual thoughts, or religious obsessions — also known as “scrupulosity” — where the patient is overly preoccupied with offending God or with doing the morally right thing. There are also people who are OCD about being perfectionists — things have to be in order, precise, and exact. Others are fearful of getting “contaminated” with germs or diseases.
“We’re more similar than we are different,” Radomsky said. “People with OCD and related problems are very much like everyone else.”