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Are You A Clean Freak Or Do You Have OCD?

Author Bio: Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher and freelance nutrition & wellness writer. After years of navigating the messy waters of mental health, her mission is to share her experiences and advice with others.


Are You A Clean Freak Or Do You Have OCD?

OCD seems to be a misunderstood disorder. I’m sure you’ve heard people making comments about their ‘OCD tendencies’, or have possibly compared your own habits to those of someone with OCD. This unfortunately inadvertently reduces the disorder to a not-so-serious issue. In reality, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a very difficult and challenging disorder to overcome, experienced by about 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children. Depending on the severity of the OCD, sufferers may be paralysed by their symptoms, unable to function normally in their daily lives.

While OCD comes in many forms with sufferers experiencing a variety of symptoms, the most commonly known and experienced type of OCD is Contamination OCD. Many people compare contamination OCD to liking a clean house or washing their hands before sitting down to have dinner. This explanation, however, is entirely inaccurate. Contamination OCD is not simply a bother to sufferers, it’s debilitating, exhausting and uncontrollable.

What is Contamination OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is defined by someone experiencing anxiety due to an obsession which they then try to ease by compulsively performing a behaviour. The behaviour typically will briefly ease anxiety. 

An example of this for those with Contamination OCD could be

  1. They cleaned the counters but are anxious there is still bacteria on them. 
  2. They start to obsess over the idea that the counters have bacteria on them.
  3. To ease this anxiety, they compulsively clean the counters a few more times
  4. This temporarily eases their anxiety

Contamination OCD affects between 25%-50% of OCD sufferers. Many of us may think we have OCD tendencies because we can’t stand being in a dirty environment or leaving the house without brushing our teeth. 

The distinction between being a ‘clean freak’ and having Contamination OCD is the anxiety that comes with OCD, and of course, a diagnosis. People who are diagnosed with Contamination OCD are likely experiencing tremendous amounts of anxiety. They’ll wash their hair multiple times or scrub the floor to try to ease the anxiety they’re feeling. 

People who are simply clean freaks won’t have the same levels of unconsolable anxiety. We may prefer our home to be clean at all times, we may even be considered a bit annoying about how tidy we need our space to be kept, but this does not result in a diagnosis of OCD. 

There’s nothing wrong with being a clean freak. There is however a problem that arises when we compare clean freaks to OCD sufferers.

The problem with labelling a clean freak as ‘OCD’

Being a clean freak can maybe be a bit annoying for bystanders. It might become frustrating if someone takes cleanliness so far that they move belongings and clean things up that we haven’t finished with yet. 

Declaring the person has OCD because of their behaviour though is damaging for a few reasons.

It belittles the very real struggles that OCD sufferers face. 

Saying someone has OCD because they like a clean environment makes OCD seem like a quirky personality trait when it isn’t. OCD is a serious mental health condition that sufferers need professional help and guidance to manage symptoms.  

As with many mental health conditions, the more the general population understands the condition, the more patient and empathetic we will be towards people with that mental health issue. If we randomly compare mentally healthy people with people who have OCD, we’re belittling the issue and fueling a narrative that OCD is a choice, it’s easy, it’s a quirky personality trait. It inadvertently teaches people that OCD is not a big issue. As we now know, this is completely incorrect. 

Depending on the person’s experiences with mental health, this could be a triggering thing to say to someone.

As much as we think we might know and understand a person, we really don’t know everything about their mental health. If I were to call someone OCD because they moved my jacket, this could actually be pretty triggering for someone who has a complicated relationship with their mental wellbeing. 

Mental health is a topic that is off-limits for many people, and understandably so. A lot of the time, we only feel comfortable sharing with those we are close to and those we trust to not judge us. Declaring ‘you’re so OCD’ is a judgement, and one with negative connotations. It starts and ends any real conversation around mental health and wellbeing.

What if they actually do struggle with Contamination OCD?

In this instance, we’re calling someone out for being ‘so OCD’ with the implication that that’s a bad thing, without realising that they actually do have OCD. This sucks for the person who’s being called out. Maybe they aren’t ready to openly talk about their disorder, or maybe they aren’t at a stage yet where they’re managing symptoms. Maybe they are undergoing treatment and are feeling lonely and scared.

Pointing out someone’s disorder in this type of way can result in them shutting down. They may not want to talk about it after being called out publicly. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed of their mental health.

If you’re genuinely concerned that someone you love has OCD, this is a conversation that should happen in private. This shouldn’t be a confrontation, it should be an invitation to the person to share as much as they feel comfortable sharing about their struggles. 

How to support someone who has Contamination OCD

If your loved one suffers from Contamination OCD, a great place to start is educating yourself on what that means for them. In 2020, contamination OCD has become a lot more complicated, with the coronavirus adding another thick layer of anxiety onto an already complicated mental health disorder.

Outside of being a professional doctor, healthcare provider or therapist, what you can do for your loved one suffering from OCD is simply be available to them if they would like to talk. 

If you’re concerned about your own safety or the safety of your loved one, remember to always seek professional advice.


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