In popular culture, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often portrayed through characters who can’t bring themselves to step on cracks in the sidewalk, who are germaphobes, or who are obsessed with cleanliness and organization. These “hang-ups” are often played for comic effect.
“There’s a huge misconception that OCD is cute and quirky,” says Shala Nicely, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a practice in Marietta, Georgia, who specializes in treating OCD and related disorders. “There’s nothing further from the truth. That [stereotype] keeps people from seeking help. They think they just need to ‘get it together’ and deal with it.”
In reality, OCD can be debilitating, says Nicely, who has lived with the disorder since she was a child. Individuals with OCD are haunted by unwanted and invasive thoughts that are often self-critical, fear-inducing or disturbing. One of the classic portraits of OCD is the person who won’t touch a doorknob without a sleeve pulled over their hand out of fear of contracting germs. But that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the different types of compulsions — whether external, such as repeated hand-washing, or internal, such as rumination — that individuals with OCD feel subjected to in order to keep themselves safe.
OCD can be “hell on Earth,” Nicely asserts.
“It puts people in absolute misery. It makes people’s lives smaller and smaller and smaller,” she says. “Having OCD is like living with an abuser 24/7. It’s incredibly mean, it’s very critical, and [it] can be violent. It is being yelled at by your own brain and you can’t get away from it.”
The tipping point
Justin Hughes, an LPC who owns a private practice in Dallas, specializes in treating clients with OCD, anxiety and other mental health issues. He says many of his clients seek treatment because they are overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts or because their compulsions and routines are interfering with their daily life — taking up enormous amounts of time and causing them stress or even physical pain. Other clients come to treatment because a parent, spouse or loved one noticed the toll that OCD was taking on the person and expressed concern.
Karina Dach, who specializes in treating OCD and anxiety at her private practice in Denver, says clients sometimes come to counseling knowing that “something doesn’t feel right” but without realizing that they have OCD. “They may say things like, ‘I feel stuck,’ ‘My brain won’t let me move on,’ or ‘I can’t stop thinking about this or imagining this.’ They might feel like something is wrong with them or worry that these thoughts and fears mean something bad about their character or them,” explains Dach, an LPC and licensed mental health counselor.
Clients who come to counseling with OCD may be struggling with self-criticism and intense feelings of shame, guilt, anger, worry and fear, Nicely adds. Intrusive thoughts are common with OCD, and for some people, these thoughts can involve the idea that they might somehow end up killing, injuring or sexually molesting someone, including their loved ones. As these thoughts repeat themselves over and over, the individual may begin to believe the content of these thoughts and feel a deep sense of shame or embarrassment.
In fact, clients struggling with OCD may be hesitant to share the worst of their intrusive thoughts because they can involve things that are criminal or dangerous. “Some [individuals with OCD] really do think they might be a closet murderer. They’re afraid to share that, [thinking that] they might get in trouble,” Nicely says.
Given that insight, Nicely says, counselors should not hesitate to follow up conversations about intrusive thoughts and worries in session by asking clients if there is anything else they have been too scared to share. These clients should be reassured that counseling is a safe and confidential place to share whatever they are going through, Nicely adds.
Obsessions + compulsions
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 1.2% of U.S. adults experience OCD each year. This prevalence is higher for females (1.8%) than for males (0.5%). The lifetime prevalence of OCD in the U.S. is 2.3%.
Jeff Szymanski, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the International OCD Foundation, notes that even though the prevalence of OCD is not increasing, mental health practitioners may see more people who struggle with the disorder in their caseloads in the future because of a gradual, general increase in awareness and a reduction of stigma regarding
OCD is characterized by two components: 1) recurring and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and 2) excessive urges to perform certain actions over and over again (compulsions) to prevent or counteract the recurring thoughts. The types of obsessions and compulsions that individuals with OCD can experience are wide-ranging.
Not all recurring thoughts can be categorized as OCD obsessions, Szymanski stresses. “Obsessions in OCD are also ego-dystonic, meaning that the individual doesn’t like or want them. … Some recurring thoughts people like to have,” he says. “In lay language, people say things like ‘I’m obsessed with baseball.’ This means they like baseball. They may even spend a lot of time ‘compulsively’ following baseball. But this doesn’t interfere with their life, and it is something that is invited, not something they are trying to get away from.”
OCD-related obsessions can include unwanted sexual thoughts, religious obsessions, fear of contamination (by dirt, germs, chemicals or other substances), fear of losing control of yourself, fear of being responsible for harm to oneself or others, fear of illness, and myriad other concerns. Compulsions can involve:
- Washing and cleaning tasks (including personal hygiene)
- Checking behaviors (such as checking news headlines over and over to ensure that nothing terrible has happened, or checking multiple times that a door is locked)
- Repeated actions such as blinking or tapping
- Performing certain actions multiple times (e.g., opening and closing doors, going up and down stairs)
- Asking questions (possibly to include the same or similar questions over and over) to seek reassurance
- Internal actions such as repeated prayers, counting rituals, and repeated mental review or replaying of past scenarios and interactions
(Get an in-depth explanation of OCD from the International OCD Foundation at iocdf.org/about-ocd.)
“If a counselor begins hearing the exact same things [from a client in session], worded or behaved in similar ways, this is a good indicator [of OCD] to watch out for,” Hughes says. “Many of my clients are good at exactly quoting themselves on what they’ve said before. Obsessions are repetitions on a theme; if you get good at catching the theme, you can usually spot an obsession miles away.”
Compulsions can also involve avoidance behaviors. For example, Dach once had a client, a new mother, who was experiencing intense thoughts and fears about harming her baby. She would avoid interacting with her child — particularly being in the bathroom with the child while he was being bathed — because she felt it was safer to be away from him.
OCD-related avoidance can spill over into the life choices that clients make, such as where they work or live, what their hobbies are or even the words they use, Dach says. Individuals with OCD sometimes exercise another form of avoidance — breaking up with a partner because they fear the doubt, uncertainty and risks involved in having a relationship. However, they soon find that ending the relationship doesn’t quell their rumination, Dach notes.
Individuals with OCD “operate on a risk-adverse level,” explains Dach, a member of the American Counseling Association. “You find them checking a lot, asking for reassurance, accommodating their fears and compulsions. … It’s terrifying and it takes over people’s lives. We see OCD as this mental bully. You are a complete prisoner to your fears. People with OCD just want to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
Obsessions are often a reflection of a person’s deeply held values, such as being a good parent, keeping their family safe, or being a good person, Dach notes. Focusing on these values can be a source of leverage when counseling clients with OCD. When working with the new mother who had intrusive thoughts about harming her child, Dach talked with the client about how her fears were based in the values she possessed of wanting to connect with her child, be a good mother and keep him safe.
“If you can find what the client’s values are, that can be very powerful,” Dach says. “Maybe you fear rejection and failure but value excelling in a career. Finding those values can make a really clear [therapeutic] path to work on and find motivation.”
Several of the counselors interviewed for this article recommend that practitioners use the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale to assess clients for OCD and to get a full evaluation of clients’ obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. If clients identify numerous behaviors and thoughts that they experience from the assessment’s detailed checklist, counselors should work with them to “triage,” creating a plan of care to address their most pressing or concerning issues first, Nicely says. Seeing the fearful thoughts and tortuous behaviors that they’ve been experiencing included on the checklist can serve to normalize clients’ experiences and demonstrate that they aren’t alone in their struggles, she adds.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes OCD under a cluster of diagnoses that also includes body dysmorphic disorder, hoarding disorder, trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder) and excoriation (skin-picking) disorder.
OCD can be complicated to identify because the disorder often co-occurs with other issues such as bipolar disorder, anxiety-related disorders, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse, notes Nicole Hill, an LPC who co-authored an ACA practice brief on OCD. Because clients with OCD often struggle with multiple presenting concerns, the disorder can be hard to pinpoint. In addition to delving into these clients’ distress, counselors should complete full biosocial assessments to get a clearer picture of their life and family history, social landscape, early childhood experiences and other contextual factors, says Hill, a professor and dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.
Although there is no one particular cause of OCD, research indicates that there may be a number of contributing or correlating factors, including genetics and family-based factors, autoimmune issues, and the brain structure involved in transmission of serotonin. Being aware of the client’s full context — especially whether other family members have OCD — can provide counselors a better understanding of the person’s experience and risk factors, says Hill, an ACA member who co-authored a chapter on OCD and related disorders in the 2016 book Diagnosing and Treating Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.
OCD is easier to pinpoint in clients who describe overt compulsive behaviors, such as checking the weather forecast repeatedly. Asking questions to probe the depth and root of clients’ fears can help uncover mental compulsions that aren’t as immediately noticeable, such as mentally reviewing the activities of their day over and over again, repeating a conversation or a word to themselves a certain number of times, or saying a certain prayer repeatedly, Dach says.
To probe clients’ experiences, Dach suggests counselors begin by asking how they deal with stress and anxiety. It is certainly normal for people to experience anxiety from time to time, and it is true that individuals with anxiety disorders may be confronted by intrusive thoughts, ruminate, and perform certain coping behaviors. With OCD, however, the worry, fear and compulsive behaviors become so all-encompassing that they impair the individual’s ability to function. For example, most people wash their hands to keep from getting sick, but individuals with OCD may wash their hands a certain number of times, for a certain length of time, or until it feels “right” to them, Dach says.
“We all have this inner voice that’s telling us what’s safe and not safe. But someone with OCD has a faulty alarm system. They’re more vigilant. A whole battle can be happening internally on what’s safe and what it takes to be safe,” Dach explains.
To uncover compulsions that are internal (and, thus, less apparent to others), Dach suggests asking clients questions along the following lines:
- Are there words or statements that make you feel better or that you say to yourself? Do you do something a certain number of times in your mind until it feels right?
- When you’re lying in bed, is that when your mind wanders the most? What are you thinking about? Is it about your day and what you could have done differently? What you
- When you enter a room, what’s the first thing you do? Do you beeline straight to where you need to go, or do you scan the area first to feel safe?
From there, Dach suggests asking clients what would happen if they weren’t able to complete whatever action they felt compelled to perform. “If there is clear distress in their answer, that may indicate OCD,” she says.
Another indicator that OCD may be present is if the client doesn’t respond to methods that counselors typically use to help individuals with their negative thoughts, says Hughes, the Dallas-Fort Worth advocate for OCD Texas, a regional affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. “If a client isn’t improving from certain methods — especially things like cognitive restructuring in cognitive behavioral therapy — this is ‘Getting Stuck 101’ and needs further assessment,” Hughes says. “Most of my clients have had prior experience with a counselor who had no idea how to treat OCD from an evidence-based way and approached it the same as regular old automatic negative thoughts. This is not typically helpful.”
OCD is disruptive, not only to the individual’s ability to function but also to their family life, says Hill, whose past clinical work included treating juvenile clients with OCD via play therapy. Parents and families often restructure their routines or make accommodations to work around a loved one’s compulsive behaviors, especially if the individual with OCD is a young child. OCD behaviors can be very concerning to parents and, in some cases, embarrassing in public situations. In making accommodations, the family typically feels like they are doing what they can to help the person, but that approach is actually counterproductive, Hill says. In reality, accommodating or yielding to OCD behaviors can exacerbate the issue.
Counselors shouldn’t hesitate to involve a client’s family in OCD treatment (if applicable and with the client’s consent) or to reach out to collaborate with social workers, family counselors or other professionals who may be working with the family, Hill says. Counselors can play a vital role in educating parents and family members about what an OCD diagnosis entails and clarifying the therapy goals for their loved one. They can also offer helpful, nonaccommodating ways to intervene when the person’s OCD spikes. Hill says that in her past work with juvenile clients, she often saw the severity of OCD decrease when she used filial play therapy with children and parents. This approach served to bolster their relationship, problem-solving skills and communication patterns. It also instilled a focus on positive behavior and empowering the child, she says.
Working with other treatment providers
Research has shown that a combination of therapy and psychiatric drugs, especially exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy and serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can be particularly helpful to people with OCD.
“Attending to clients’ socioemotional and cognitive issues [in counseling] will be helpful, in addition to medicine,” Hill says. “Research consistently shows that the both/and approach is best, with medication and therapy.”
Medicine can “turn down the volume” on clients’ OCD so that therapy can help them manage their rituals and compulsions, says Nicely, who estimates that three-quarters of her clients take medication. Eventually, if clients and their prescribers agree it is the best course of action, their medications can be tapered back as their coping skills are strengthened in counseling.
Although professional counselors cannot prescribe medications, they must always consider their clients’ use of medications — and be proactive in working with clients’ medication prescribers — when looking at the whole picture of treating OCD. With clients’ consent, counselors can check in with these other treatment providers about clients’ symptoms and progress in counseling.
“I always worked on a team with other professionals,” says Szymanski, who was previously the director of psychological services at McLean Hospital’s OCD Institute in Massachusetts. “It is important to ensure that some time is spent coordinating care and that everyone’s work is complementary and not getting in the way of each other. It is equally important to inquire from the client how the team format is working for them and to ask them for specific feedback and encourage them to give direct feedback to each of their team members.”
Coordinating care among multiple treatment providers can be challenging, but it is worth it to work toward the best outcome for the client, Hughes asserts. Even imperfect, one-way communication stands to benefit the client.
“Although seamless communication and record exchange between providers is likely ideal, it just rarely happens in real life,” Hughes says. “In complex cases, it is almost unheard of for me to not [reach out to] another provider that is connected somehow to shared treatment concerns. I think we need to be realistic about other providers’ schedules and to communicate what we can, how we can. This often looks like me leaving a psychiatrist a voicemail after release is given and not hearing back, but at least they have the information.”
In addition to professionals who prescribe them medications, clients may be seeing other practitioners for treatment of issues such as depression and substance abuse that often co-present with OCD. This offers opportunities not only to coordinate care but also to make other health care professionals who do not specialize in OCD treatment aware of the disorder’s nuances. These professionals can also be alerted to the pitfalls of inadvertently undermining the client’s work in counseling by feeding their compulsions through accommodation or reassurance, Hughes says.
Many other comorbidities in clients will often improve by treating their OCD first, Hughes adds.
Exposure and response prevention
Research has identified ERP, a type of cognitive behavior therapy, as the most helpful and effective therapeutic method for treating OCD. All of the counselors interviewed for this article recommend its use with clients who have OCD. The International OCD Foundation refers to ERP as the “gold standard” for treating OCD and more helpful than traditional talk therapy methods.
In ERP, clinicians use gradual exposure to desensitize clients to the OCD-related thoughts, compulsions, situations or objects that are invoking fear and worry in them. With each exercise, the client works to overcome a triggering thought or scenario without responding with a compulsive action. This is the “response prevention” part of ERP. Exposure work is done both in session with a counselor and outside of session as homework for clients to complete on their own.
Counselors should be aware that clients’ OCD is likely to spike as they begin ERP treatment, Nicely says, because it removes the compulsions that have given them reassurance in
Over time, ERP empowers clients to confront thoughts and situations that they often would have tried to avoid previously, Dach says. “When someone has intrusive thoughts, they tend to [try and] push them away, and it effectively boomerangs. Pushing things away and trying to avoid them only empowers [the OCD] and gives it too much value,” she explains. “This [ERP]
puts them in the driver’s seat. They are the driver, instead of the fear deciding their choices.”
With the new mother mentioned earlier in this article, Dach used incremental exposure exercises to help her overcome her fear of harming her baby. At first, the baby was left outside of the counseling room with a caretaker while the client met with Dach. They started small, exposing the client to words that were triggering, such as “baby” or “bathing.” As the client progressed, Dach asked her to bring the baby into sessions. Even taking the baby out of his car seat and putting him on her knee was triggering to the client at first, Dach recalls. Dach would talk the client through each exercise, asking her throughout to monitor her level of distress on a scale of 1 to 10.
Eventually, the client graduated to exercises that included changing the baby’s diaper in session. In time, the client was able to work toward bathing her child at home, which had been one of her most fear-inducing obsessions.
Giving clients exposure assignments to work on between sessions is a critical part of ERP, Dach says. This can include creating a “worry script” in which clients write out imagined worst-case scenarios for themselves. For example, for one client, the scenario might involve going to the mall or another public place and losing control of themselves so that they vomit or yell and cause a scene, Dach says. The client imagines everyone staring at them, the client dying of embarrassment and then being banned from the mall. The client writes out all of the details of what they are feeling, seeing and experiencing in this imagined scenario. Next, the client reads or rewrites the story script repeatedly or records themselves reading it and listens to the recording over and over, Dach explains.
“It’s like watching a scary movie 1,000 times. It might be scary when you watch it the 1,000th time, but [it’s] not as terrorizing as the first time,” she says.
Dach uses the metaphor of working at a garbage facility to explain the effectiveness of ERP: On your first day, you notice the smell of the garbage and it’s so disgusting to you that you can’t even eat your lunch. But the smell bothers you less and less as you return to work each day and, eventually, you barely notice the smell at all.
ERP is granting permission “to open the doors to your dungeon and hang out with all these skeletons that you’ve got hiding in there,” Dach says. “If you grab your sleeping bag and pillow and hang out in there, eventually you’ll be more comfortable being around them.”
Hughes recalls one client with OCD who was struggling with severely distressing thoughts about harming her children. The client had no history of harm or abuse. Over time, the client found it difficult to differentiate between reality — that she would never intentionally hurt her children — and her intrusive thoughts about having impulses to stab her children, Hughes says.
“She knew [these fears] were irrational, yet it felt so real to her,” Hughes says. “As can be very typical, the stress also took a toll on most every area of her life, [including] making work difficult.”
ERP work began with small exercises the client learned to conquer while staying present with her distress and without turning to compulsions, Hughes says. The client was able to integrate ERP assignments into her daily life with the support of her loved ones, church community and her own desire to be able to engage with her family without fear of harming them.
She soon graduated to script writing and larger exposures that involved holding knives and stating her feared thoughts aloud (appropriately and not in front of her young children), Hughes says. For example, the client would work outside in the family garden and repeat to herself the worst-case scenario she had written in her scripts: “I’m wanting to use these yard tools to kill my daughters.” Later, she added more distressing content: “I want to stab them, and I’ll get arrested and divorced and be hated by my kids.”
Other exposures involved holding a butcher knife firmly for 15 seconds at a time (and eventually longer) while repeating her scripts. Over time, the client worked toward being home alone with her children, bathing her children, and ultimately cooking for her children (including using knives) while her husband was out of town.
Now the client’s OCD symptoms score so low on the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale that she would be considered subclinical, Hughes says. “In relapse prevention planning, [this client] understands the chronic nature of OCD and the necessity of staying on top of her good progress, with the plan to follow up at occasional intervals for ‘booster sessions,’” Hughes says. “I gain so much joy from stories like these.”
ERP is effective because it empowers clients to tolerate the uncertainty that is at the core of their fear and worry, Nicely explains. The crux of the problem is not a client’s worry over contracting HIV or stabbing their husband, she says, but tolerating the uncertainty of whether or not those fears might happen.
“The hallmark question of OCD is ‘what if’ and having doubts,” says Nicely, the author of the 2018 book Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life. Treating only the content of a client’s worries without teaching the client to tolerate uncertainty will simply lead the OCD to surge (or resurge) in another area of the client’s life, Nicely notes.
For ERP to be effective, it requires commitment and trust between the client and practitioner. Nicely explains to each client that the work requires a cognitive shift — that trying to avoid anxiety and OCD triggers actually makes them worse.
In working with clients with OCD, Nicely uses the acronym JOY: Jump into anxiety, opt for greater good, and yield to the anxiety. Nicely goes into detail about this method in the 2017 book she co-authored with Jon Hershfield, Everyday Mindfulness for OCD.
She asks clients, “What if we didn’t push the anxiety away? What if we brought it toward us? Can you handle it?” Then she points out an example of how the clients are already handling uncertainty by taking the first step of coming to counseling. Bringing anxiety toward them is equal to taking away OCD’s power, she explains.
Nicely books a double session with clients for their first exposure treatment. After the exposure work, they process what happened together. Nicely asks questions such as: Was it as hard as you thought? What did you learn? Did you learn that this is something that you can do to get your life back?
“If you do [triggering things] over and over again, then the brain begins to learn that these things aren’t the problem,” Nicely says. “The reason that our brain is putting these thoughts up front is because we’re reacting to them. The brain is learning when you’re allowing it to stay at a high level of anxiety.”
“OCD is a biological issue,” she says. “Our brains [in those with OCD] are structurally and functionally different than those without OCD. You can’t think your way out of this. It’s a brain disorder, and ERP changes the way our brain functions.”
Nicely uses a concept she calls “shoulders back” with both herself and her clients. She says that squaring one’s shoulders can serve as a physical reminder that whatever a person’s OCD is telling them, it doesn’t matter, and they can act as if it’s irrelevant.
“Ultimately, we want people to hear all of this [OCD triggers] in their heads and go on and have it bother them less and less,” Nicely says. “We want them to live in a world of uncertainty and not have it bother them and act as if their intrusive thoughts don’t matter.”
It can also be helpful for clients to imagine what their OCD “monster” looks like or even to give it a name. Nicely does that herself, even speaking to her OCD when it begins to surge. Nicely thinks of her OCD as something that will always be a part of her. It’s something that, at its core, wants her to feel safe.
“It’s exceptionally important [for clients] to realize that OCD is part of them, but it is not them,” she says. “That will help them to conceptualize the process. Think of it as something that has been torturing you. Talk back to it and tell it where you want it to go.”
The compulsions associated with OCD often arise out of a person’s urge to find reassurance and feelings of safety, Dach says. As helping professionals, counselors’ natural reaction may be to try to comfort these clients by telling them that their worst fears will not come true. But in the case of clients with OCD, offering reassurance is actually doing harm and reinforcing behavior, Dach stresses.
“No one knows whether or not the fear will happen — not the therapist [and not] the client. But the client will search and search and search for reassurance, an illusion of security and control,” Dach says. “If a practitioner gives them reassurance, they’re making the condition worse.”
When Dach finds clients asking questions as a means of seeking reassurance in sessions, she explains that she will answer questions to provide education or information but not for the purposes of offering reassurance. “It may be a hard pill to swallow, but we [counselors] need to sit with their uncertainty together and model what it looks like to sit with distress,” Dach says.
When clients express anxiety over the possibility of vomiting in a public place or some other OCD-related fear coming true, counselors shouldn’t reassure them that it won’t happen, Dach says, because there is no way to ensure that it won’t. Instead, she says, counselors can respond with questions such as, “If you did vomit, what’s the worst thing that could happen? What would it feel like? How do you know it’s going to happen?”
“The possibility is there, but the probability is low,” Dach says. “I can’t tell [the client] whether or not something is going to happen. The best we can do is put ourselves in a situation [via exposure] to learn what’s going to happen. Then I offer to lean into that discomfort [with the client].”
On the same team
There is sometimes a misconception among mental health professionals that exposure work can traumatize clients, but that simply isn’t true, Dach stresses. Therapy with a practitioner specially trained in ERP is hard work — it’s asking a client “to walk into their worst nightmare and have a party” — but it’s also incredibly effective and rewarding, she says.
“This is an extremely collaborative intervention. We’re on the same team. It’s not forcing [clients] to do things. It is asking them to get close to the thing they’re afraid of the most. You [the counselor] are there to offer gentle pushing, but it’s all choice-based,” Dach says.
Nicely and Hughes say that clients with OCD tend to be incredibly brave and also deeply caring. It is inspiring, Nicely says, to watch clients tackle such hard things in therapy and become more resilient.
“For many reasons, I love work with clients who have OCD,” Hughes adds. “I have found that they are some of the kindest, hardest-working and most conscientious individuals on this planet. This is where I believe many of their personality strengths arise once [they move] through pathology. It is a joy every day to see recovery, growth and maturity bloom out of suffering.”
The International OCD Foundation offers a wealth of resources and information on its website, iocdf.org, as well as training programs, an annual conference, and local affiliates around the country.
Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:
- Karina Dach: anxietyocdcounseling.com
- Nicole Hill: NRHill@ship.edu
- Justin Hughes: justinkhughes.com
- Shala Nicely: shalanicely.com
OCD is not an adjective
It’s not uncommon for people to describe themselves in casual conversation as “obsessed” with a television series or “OCD” about the way they organize their closet.
Professional counselors can be agents of change when it comes to casual use of the language related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), says Shala Nicely, a licensed professional counselor in Georgia who specializes in treating the disorder. She encourages counselors to be mindful of their own language and to gently correct those who misuse OCD-related terms.
One place to begin: Stop using OCD as an adjective, she says. Someone might be meticulous or detail-oriented or neat, but he or she is not “OCD.” To say “I’m so OCD” about something can discourage people who really do have OCD from seeking treatment, especially if that offhand pronouncement comes from a mental health professional, Nicely says.
Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
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