Psychology’s Explosion into Common Language: Or, Why You Probably Don’t Have OCD

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As people become more and more aware of mental health disorders and how these can affect their lives and the lives of their family and friends, many words that used to be limited to mental health offices are making their way into common language. While talking about mental health and creating awareness is important, this “common language” explosion of psychological terms can be a bit misleading, especially when people use the terms to mean something other than what the actual diagnosis means. When people seek out counseling in Highlands Ranch, they often come in wondering if they have common mental health disorders based on what they have seen in popular media or gleaned from friends. In a previous post, we’ve covered the differences between “depressed” and “Depression.”  This blog will review some of the most common terms that have “escaped” from the mental health field and made their way into everyday language, as well as how these words are different from the actual disorders they are similar to.

Anxiety. Everyone should feel anxious at some point. When a police officer pulls your car over, when you’re waiting in the dentist’s office for that big root canal, or when you’re interviewing for a competitive position, a little worry, stress, or heightened response is normal. Many experience anxiety, but for those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, the anxiety is more than a racing heartbeat before a big event. It’s feeling like that big event is constantly happening, no matter where you are, and feeling even higher levels of anxiety that make it hard to work or think.

OCD. From the formal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD has crept into popular language to mean anyone who likes things overly tidy or whose standards don’t quite match those of others. For example, ask most teenagers about their parents’ opinions on cleaning, and you might hear some surprising answers. One teen laments “my mom has OCD—she expects me to wash the dishes every single day!” Similarly, some people will consider one little quirk or habit, say counting sidewalk cracks on long boring walks, to be “OCD.” While any of these little quirks could be part of the actual disorder, people who have OCD for real do more than just irk others for a minute or two; they spend hours and hours each day performing often senseless behaviors to reduce obsessive and awful thoughts.

ADD/ADHD. Losing your stride during a 12-hour movie marathon is not ADHD. Struggling to focus when you are reading a difficult and boring text is not ADHD. Fidgeting now and again is not ADHD. While all of these would also be things that a person with ADHD would show, remember that those who actually have this problem struggle to attend and focus on information all the time , including things they love, and often report feeling driven, scattered, and may struggle with processing speed, working memory, or other tasks.

As a rule, if your problem isn’t affecting you on a daily or near-daily basis, and if it isn’t causing disruption in your normal life, it isn’t usually a problem. We can’t perform 100% all the time, and variation is normal. For those who do struggle with these and other mental health issues, however, there is no variation: anxiety, obsessions, compulsions, and problems focusing are nonstop, disruptive, and debilitating at times. If this sounds like you, seek counseling in Littleton to find an effective diagnosis and treatment—your problems can get better! If you realize your occasional challenges are nowhere near “disorder” status, consider your language use to ensure we do not take away the power of these words as actual diagnoses.


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