“Oh, I’m so OCD.”
It’s become a common expression, exclaimed by someone who is a bit overly tidy or who likes to eat their candies by color. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is, in actuality, a serious condition that causes immense, almost unbearable unrest and discomfort in individuals who struggle with it.
It is relatively common, with about half a million people in the United States living with the disorder. This equates to roughly 20 or so students in an average American high school who deal with OCD on a daily basis.
OCD symptoms in teenagers include a combination of obsessions and compulsions. “Obsessions” refer to undesired beliefs, ideas, thoughts and repetitive images that cause anxiety, and “compulsions” (also referred to as rituals) are behaviors the individual feels they must perform in order to ease the sense of anxiety.
The obsessions part of OCD symptoms in teenagers can include an overwhelming, overly-consuming concern for germs and contamination, a need to have things in order or in their “proper place” or a fixation with specific numbers. These are just a few of many types of obsessions that individuals with OCD experience.
The key to differentiating obsessions from regular desires is the absolute anxiety that obsessions cause. When people say they have OCD because they like a room to be clean, often the missing factor in their description is the crippling anxiety experienced by those who truly do suffer with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Performing compulsions (rituals) provides temporary relief from the anxiety caused by obsessions. Compulsions may include excessive hand-washing or cleaning, putting things in order or in specific places, repeating tasks such as checking whether the door is locked or the sink has been turned off, or repetitive counting.
Again, missing from the generic “I’m so OCD” descriptor is the anxiety. When individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder perform compulsions or rituals, they are doing so to relieve the anxiety caused by their obsessions, not simply because they wanted to double-check that the door was locked. Some people with OCD must perform rituals a specific number of times to satisfy both the compulsion for completing the task as well as a need for achieving specific numbers.
Performing compulsions can be debilitating. Oftentimes compulsions get in the way of basic tasks such as getting ready or doing homework; when someone is constantly worried about carrying out their rituals, they can’t complete their tasks at hand without getting interrupted. This is when OCD becomes a major problem for both the person involved and those around them such as parents, siblings or teachers.
Teenagers Who Struggle With OCD
OCD symptoms in teenagers are exceptionally concerning because their obsessions and compulsions make them feel different, weird or crazy. During high school, the desire to fit in hits its peak and the need to endlessly arrange pens in a specific order on their desk or obsessive tapping or touching receives notice from peers and can lead to being singled out or made fun of.
Medications for teenagers with OCD can be a lifesaver. They may not eliminate all of the OCD symptoms, but they can help. When overall anxiety is reduced, the necessity to carry out rituals is lessened, resulting in a happier child. They no longer feel as though they’re on the outside looking in, a slave to their disorder. Instead, they are able to participate along with their peers, free from the worry of sticking out.
“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Children and Teenagers” International OCD Foundation
“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” National Institute of Mental Health