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OCD vs. Cleanliness; What's the Difference?

Researcher & Writer: Eugena Chan

Illustrator: Mia Yung

If you’ve been on the internet in these recent years, you’ll know that OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) has been the topic of many conversations and jokes. Simply put, OCD is misunderstood. This disorder is quite rare, with only 2.9% of Hong Kong’s population being diagnosed and only around 1 - 2.5% of the population worldwide being diagnosed.

So, what is OCD? OCD is characterised as a condition where individuals experience unwanted, recurring thoughts and highly repetitive behaviours. These thoughts are often obsessive and do not dissipate until the urge or behaviour is carried out. As for the behaviours, these are the compulsive acts that need to be fulfilled by the individual in order to feel some sense of relief. If the urge or behaviour is not completed, the individual is likely to experience strong feelings of anxiety, stress, disgust and/or unease. For example, someone with OCD may need to consistently flip a light switch a certain number of times every time in order to get rid of their certain obsessive thoughts. In some more serious cases, those with OCD may feel like they could be subject to harm or even die if they do not complete a certain task. Whilst they might know that this behaviour is illogical, they have no control over it and have no way of stopping these kinds of thoughts.

In the media, OCD is often wrongly portrayed as one’s need to be ‘tidy’, ‘clean’ and ‘organised’ and if they aren’t, it ‘triggers their OCD’. Though this may be the case for some people, this does not mean that everyone who desires organisation has OCD. The reason cleaning is often associated with OCD is that many people who have this disorder experience obsessive thoughts about germs and their anxieties revolve around them. But this is not to be confused with cleanliness.

People who have a desperate need to clean all the time (often called ‘neat-freaks’) are completely different from those with OCD. Where those with OCD may only clean and organise to rid themselves of their unwanted, obsessive thoughts, people who feel the need to clean and organise constantly have a different motivator, their desire the feeling of of feeling cleanliness and being germ free.

There are several things to take into consideration regarding the differentiation of OCD and simply being clean. Firstly, it is important to know that using and applying the mental disorder ‘OCD’ to refer to pleasing organisation can be quite harmful to those who actually suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It minimises their struggles and makes OCD seem like something it isn't: the love for cleaning. It also creates an environment where the stigma around OCD is further built up, as if it were something ‘quirky personality trait’ and not a serious mental disorder, making those with OCD afraid to seek professional help. Those with OCD are often ostracised for being ‘strange’ and ‘weird’ for having obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, further isolating themselves from the community, so what can be done as a community to help those suffering from OCD?

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) has been found to be incredibly helpful to those who need to relieve their anxieties and stress of dealing with this disorder. Another form of therapy is ERP (exposure response prevention), which is when the patient voluntarily faces their fears in an attempt to overcome them. So, the next time you see an aesthetically pleasing organisational video, remember to be mindful of your words and know the difference between tidiness and OCD.


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