A “Little Bit” of OCD: When Words Trivialize a Disorder

Sheldon Cooper, a beloved character in a television series, knocks on a door exactly three times before his roommate opens it — and if the door is opened earlier, he still persists his triad of door knocks. He fixates on occupying the exact same spot on the sofa every single time calling it “his” spot. As an audience, we watch his actions and surmise, “He has a little bit of OCD.”

The reality is: there is no such thing as a “little bit” when it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorders.

We throw around this phrase at the sight of anything that sounds perfectionist or persistent or when someone has oddly particular preferences. “I’m a little bit OCD,” we might say, justifying why our books are arranged alphabetically. But these words trivialize the debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, where a person with uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions), feels compelled to repeat his/her actions (compulsions) until their anxiety is relieved. What’s worse, stating someone has “a little bit of OCD” is like saying someone has “a little bit of” asthma or “a little bit of” diabetes — it’s plain absurd.

“It’s common to have worries like, ‘did I lock the car?’ or ‘did I turn the oven off?’ says Olivia, a spokesperson for OCD Action, UK. “In such a case, one would probably check the car or oven, or dismiss the worry and get back to their everyday life. But with OCD, this worry is so insurmountable that it hinders their activities and takes up a large part of their day.”

There is no such thing as a “little bit” when it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorders.

For instance, a woman with OCD may check the lock on her car repeatedly for over an hour before getting in to work; or in another case, a man may fear that his house might burn down to such an extent that he checks, a dozen times, one-by-one, if all the appliances are switched off before he leaves. Once out on the road, he feels compelled to drive back and perform the checks all over again. For people with OCD, the disorder can have a deep, crippling impact on their quality of life.

The nonchalant phrase, “feeling a bit OCD-ish” used in pop culture in response to any precise, controlled action feeds a glaring ignorance to the real disorder. Moreover, it stigmatizes individuals with a genuine battle and deters them from opening up.

Although the exact cause of OCD is unknown, the disorder manifests itself in a wide array of behaviors. The mainstream media has only highlighted a few OCD traits, namely, being neat and orderly or fearing germs. Other symptomatic types of OCD have not garnered much attention. For example, having an unreasonable fear of hurting others, or stewing forbidden thoughts about one’s religion or abhorrent thoughts about sex, or seeking constant reassurance from loved ones, to name a few, can all be symptoms associated with OCD.

“Because OCD, as portrayed by the media, is linked with extreme cleanliness and an orderly life, a person who experiences different types of obsessions but doesn’t necessarily care about neatness is oblivious to the fact that what they’re experiencing is OCD,” adds Olivia. “It is important to create an awareness about the vast diversity of OCD symptoms and know that there are treatment options available.”

“It is important to create an awareness about the vast diversity of OCD symptoms and know that there are treatment options available.”

Olivia of OCD Action

OCD is typically treated with medication, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or a combination of both. In CBT, a person learns to change the way they react to intrusive or obsessive thoughts. By attaching lesser importance to a fleeting thought, they learn to control their actions. A method used under CBT involves prolonged exposure to a “fearful” situation for the person with OCD followed by consciously preventing the compulsive actions until the anxiety subsides. Such a form of exposure therapy acclimatizes the person to their fears, thereby slowly desensitizing them to it.

As with many other anxiety disorders, it can be overwhelming for a person to identify, acknowledge, manage and treat OCD symptoms. We, as a society, can do our part to help spread the information, talk openly about obsessions, and most of all, remain aware of how our casual words can dwarf the severity of someone’s real struggle.

OCD Stress Knowing Neurons~

Learn more about OCD at OCD Action.


Written by Anita Ramanathan.

Image by Jooyeun Lee.


Anita met neuroscience during her undergraduate project, and it was love at first sight. While majoring in biotechnology at the B.M.S. College of Engineering, Bangalore, she had the opportunity to learn about biochemical subtyping as a method for biomarker discovery in neurodevelopmental disorders. She then pursued a Master’s in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at USC. During her thesis project, her interest in translational neuroscience further evolved as she studied a kinase pathway (PI3K) highly implicated in autism. She currently belongs to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at USC and works on components of the blood-brain barrier and its integrity in animal models of neurological disorders. Outside the lab, Anita is very enthusiastic about educational and scientific storytelling! Some of her parallel interests include consumer psychology and behavior.

2 thoughts on “A “Little Bit” of OCD: When Words Trivialize a Disorder

  • February 22, 2017 at 9:00 am

    In some ways I disagree with the core of the argument. Isn’t there a currently prevalent perspective on mental illnesses as constituting ‘extreme’ outlier states on a natural continuum of symptoms found in the general human population? After all, it’s an empirical finding that humans vary greatly in terms of their baseline of anxiety and resilience to stressful events, with a proportion of people exceeding the arbitrary threshold set by the DSM-V / ICD 10 for a diagnosis of general anxiety. In this case, why isn’t it possible to view OCD as a more extreme case of anxiety and compulsiveness which otherwise exists in lower levels and in a variety of forms across the general population? From what I understand, the idea that a disorder represents a qualitative ‘category’ that couldn’t possibly be compared to what is found in the general population has been replaced by the idea of continuums.

    • February 23, 2017 at 12:55 am

      Hi there! Yes, you’re right in saying that anxiety and obsessions exist on a continuum, and can be perceived as an extension of general human traits. In fact, we had the discussion on the editorial table too. The message in this article, however, is also important because through this piece, we’d like to highlight the difference between having one anxious moment where someone wakes up to check on the main door – and use the cursory phrase “Gosh, I’m a bit OCD sometimes,” versus another person with OCD, whose need to relieve anxiety is taken to another level by their compulsive mannerisms, thereby actually impacting their quality of life.

      In the two scenarios above, anxiety drives actions, but in the latter, it manifests as a disorder. You’re right in thinking mental illnesses are outliers of basic behavior; this concept would actually help relieve the stigma associated with mental disorders! What needs more awareness, though, is the everyday struggle in the case of anxiety disorders like OCD. On that perspective, the article serves to create awareness about how offhand phrases used in pop culture steer away from the seriousness of a disorder.

      Finally, we’d love to hear from you! If you’d like to put your views into an article, please feel free to reach out to us on our submissions page. Thank you, once again, for your patronage!

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