Breaking the stigma: Why we need to talk about OCD and intrusive thoughts


Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition that affects around two percent of the worldwide population. Generally, it can be characterized as having unwanted urges, mental images, and intrusive thoughts, all of which can sometimes lead to ritualistic behaviors in an attempt to remove or comfort the anxiety that can come with the disorder.  

As social media reaches its peak, the term “I’m so OCD” has become increasingly used throughout platforms such as TikTok, Twitter, and Snapchat, or just in day-to-day life conversations. People using or hearing this term without having any information about what obsessive-compulsive disorder is can be extremely harmful to the spread of misinformation about the disorder. Without any knowledge, people can tend to create their definitions using context clues, or if they take enough interest, make a Google search that would tell them that obsessive-compulsive disorder is “having a tendency towards excessive orderliness, perfectionism, and great attention to detail”. 

While it is common for people who have OCD to have these traits, someone just having them does not mean that they have OCD. Distinguishing the difference between these two general definitions can be incredibly important when it comes to education surrounding the topic. 

They may think that because they consider themselves a perfectionist and like to be organized, they have the illness, but this is not true. People who have OCD cannot function because of their compulsions. The harm that comes with this being considered the ‘main’ definition of OCD can be detrimental to people who do struggle with it. 

When people normalize OCD as being as simple as a quirk for organization, people don’t recognize the real meaning leaving the people who struggle with this disorder to feel like what they are experiencing is not something that is okay, even though it is perfectly normal. 

It can be extremely helpful to people struggling when they see something on social media that they can resonate with and can find some feeling of comfort knowing they are not alone in their experiences and maybe even come to an understanding about what is happening.

When people, especially teens, are trying to figure out what their intrusive thoughts are, they may look on the internet or social media. It is a cheaper alternative to seeing a psychiatrist or therapist, and since teens spend an increasingly long amount of time on social media such as TikTok, it could be considered more practical. 

But with misinformation or misnaming of disorders, instead of finding helpful information that could help them to feel less in the dark about themselves, they can find information that is not only unhelpful but deceitful. 

Self-diagnosis is an idea that has been around for an extensive amount of time although now it has become more commonly known as people discuss it more. Many aspects of self-diagnosis could be extraordinarily helpful for someone as it can help with self-acceptance and understanding. People find these ideas online and can resonate with them enough to bring them up to an adult. Seeing things online that are relatable can help discover things about yourself 

that you might not feel comfortable going to someone in person about. Online self-diagnosis 

can help lead someone to get the help that they need but also can contribute to false diagnoses. 

“Diagnosis is a starting point of understanding,” Sara Hawkins says for the New York Times as she discusses three clients of hers that all came to her asking if they suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. While only one of them ended up struggling with the disorder, she writes, “Bringing it up provided an opportunity for all three to further discuss any feelings of anger and irritability.” 

While there can be many good factors of self-diagnosis there will always be some drawbacks. There will always be people who take on false labels that are generated by false information, or simply just want to have a label.

There can be such a fragile line between self-diagnosis and finding real information. It is critical to help people, especially if this information comes from the internet. 

False information that can come from platforms like TikTok can impact people who struggle with OCD and may lead to intrusive thoughts that feel like what they are struggling with is not OCD and that they might be crazy. 

There’s a distinct differentiation between an intrusive thought and an impulsive action, but that separation is blurred on social media. People constantly make posts saying ‘my intrusive thoughts won’ when they do something such as dying their hair or crushing a raw egg when in reality intrusive thoughts are something completely different.

 “Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that occur over and over again and feel outside of someone’s control. They are often unpleasant and can cause a lot of worry, anxiety, distress, shame, or embarrassment. Common intrusive thoughts include doing something offensive, catching germs/serious illness, or doing something socially unacceptable. Individuals have random thoughts all the time, however, people can get upset or anxious when these ordinarily fleeting thoughts get ‘stuck,’” says an anonymous therapist. “It is important to make the distinction between impulsive behavior versus intrusive thoughts, especially when providing treatment to individuals with OCD. Individuals with OCD frequently worry about how they acted on their intrusive thoughts. It is the possibility that they could act on the thought (or that the thought could come true) which causes intense distress as they do not want this to happen.” 

Doctor Anna Rosen defines the difference between intrusive thoughts and impulsive actions as, “For OCD there’s a trigger, a thought, image, event, an experience and then there are intrusive thoughts which are unwanted and unshakeable. Usually, when there’s a catastrophic assessment, people think the thoughts are true. And you know if you don’t have OCD you can sort of let those thoughts go, you can act on it or let it pass but you’re not ruminating about it. The compulsion part is the urge to act to decrease the anxiety because acting in some way brings a sense of temporary relief of the anxiety.” 

The difference between intrusive and impulsive thoughts is excruciatingly different and when people make TikToks calling what are impulsive actions intrusive thoughts it takes away from the real meaning. 

When asked what the definition of intrusive thoughts was, a group of students answered. 

The first student, student 1a claimed, “A thought that can be dark but is always inappropriate.”

Intrusive thoughts are usually associated with inappropriate or disturbing content. 

While this certainly can be true in many cases, it’s important to understand that intrusive thoughts are not solely defined by their inappropriateness. It is important to recognize that intrusive thoughts are a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that can cause significant distress and impairment. 

Intrusive thoughts are not always inappropriate but are almost always uncomfortable. They can be dark, but they can also just be unpleasant thoughts or images. 

The second student, Student 1b said, “Things that you want to do but know you can’t.”

This is one idea that has been spread by social media and is one of the most harmful misconceptions that can surround the idea of intrusive thoughts. It is a common misinterpretation that people with intrusive thoughts want to do the things that they think about. “Intrusive thoughts are often so scary to the individual that they end up doing things to avoid them,” says the anonymous therapist. 

“People experiencing these thoughts typically work hard to fight them, which results in the thoughts becoming persistent,” says Medical News Today in their article about intrusive thoughts. 

Student 1c explained, “Thoughts that pop into a person’s head that they have no control over, and often ‘play on repeat’ in their head. Can often make the person feel like they are a bad person for thinking said thoughts, even though they have no control over them.”

Intrusive thoughts are a typical occurrence for many people, and while some people may feel especially disturbed or embarrassed about having them, the shame and misunderstandings surrounding intrusive ideas, as well as the internal dread of “what if this is something I want to do?” may all contribute to this.

Student 1d shares, “Thoughts that you can’t control? Like that, you don’t want to do it but your mind pressures you to do them.” 

Despite the distress that intrusive thoughts can cause, it’s important to note that having them does not mean that a person is more likely to act on them. Research has found that there is no correlation between having intrusive thoughts and acting on them.

This is because the brain is capable of recognizing thoughts that are not aligned with a person’s values or desires, and can suppress them accordingly. Additionally, people with intrusive thoughts often develop coping mechanisms to deal with their thoughts and prevent them from leading to harmful behaviors.

When asked what the definition of OCD is another handful of students answered. 

“Hyper fixating on something that bothers you.” student 2a said. Although OCD frequently includes hyper fixation, this is only one element of the disorder and does not necessarily affect everyone who has it. 

Student 2b says “a compulsion for everything to be neat or perfect?” 

And student 2c “obsessive-compulsive disorder is when people get triggered if things aren’t aligned properly, or if something smells strange, (other random things out of place), etc…” 

While this is one of the most mainstream stereotypes that surround obsessive-compulsive disorder it is based on the fact that some people who do struggle with OCD struggle with compulsions for things to be in the right place. 

Many people do struggle with this, but it is not the only thing that OCD can be. 

Student 2d describes OCD as “A disorder in which a person is often consumed by compulsions. Their brain tells them that they ‘must’ complete a certain action, ‘must’ do (or not do) a certain thing, and ‘must’ not think a certain thought. It is often debilitating, as it is time and brain-power-consuming.”

OCD works in a strange way where the person having the thoughts is not in control of them, their brain does and it ends up being extraordinarily taxing. 

Another group of students were asked to differentiate between intrusive and impulsive thoughts. 

Student 3a says “impulsive is like I wanna shave my head and then you do it. Intrusive is I wanna murder my entire classroom.”

This is an excellent example of differentiating between the two. Intrusive behavior refers to actions that involve imposing oneself or one’s opinions on others without their consent. This type of behavior is often unwelcome and can be seen as rude, pushy, or even aggressive.

Impulsive behavior, on the other hand, refers to actions that are taken without much forethought or consideration of the consequences. This type of behavior can be reckless, impetuous, or even dangerous.

While both types of behavior can be problematic, they stem from different underlying motivations.

Student 3b says “Not sure.” 

So many people are not correctly educated on this topic and it is showing, especially online. People who don’t know the correct meanings are more likely to use the wrong term and create that long spiral of misinformation. 

Student 3c responds that the difference is “Impulsive thoughts I think have more of a situational aspect than intrusive thoughts. An example of Impulsive thinking would be if someone dropped something on the crosswalk they would pick it up immediately even at a red light, and not trying to purposely do something crazy; intrusive would be more like jumping onto the crosswalk while the cars are being driven.”

Student 3d describes the difference as “Impulsive being impossible to control, intrusive are things you just kinda think about.”

Impulsive actions, depending on the person, can have very different intentions than intrusive thoughts. The similarities however are that both impulsive actions and intrusive thoughts come out of nowhere, but intrusive thoughts linger and will not go away while impulses will whether you act on them or not. 

Social media is virtually everywhere and almost everyone, to an extent, has access to it. Normalizing the wrong ideations of intrusive thoughts will only increase the misuse and harmful associations. 

When asked “What does it feel like when you see such widespread misinformation on the internet about intrusive thoughts?” 

Cameron Steen, a 2026 LaGuardia graduate responds, “It just makes me disappointed how the internet can spread so much misinformation about something many people are uneducated about. it can harm people and put a different meaning behind OCD compared to what it is.” 

He continues, “OCD isn’t a term to use lightly. it has nothing to do with being organized or needing things to be clean. It’s merely a stereotype that OCD is defined by someone being a “clean freak”. 

People need to learn the true meaning behind OCD because intrusive thoughts are extremely harmful, and if someone is struggling with OCD, they deserve help from mental health professionals. OCD isn’t “oh my gosh that’s out of place that makes me mad.” It’s people fearing their thoughts and having intrusive thoughts that cause harm to them constantly, and the compulsions that come from that. Mental health should be more openly taught in schools so future generations don’t have to struggle with misinformation and stereotyping surrounding OCD.

It is so important for people around the world to know what OCD is for so many reasons. Nobody should feel like they might be insane just because they and the people around them don’t have access to the correct information. 

Spreading accurate information instead could help so many people discover more about themselves in a way that does not stigmatize them and helps them feel accepted.

“I think people underestimate the effect OCD has on people, because of all of the misinformation on the internet and in society, people don’t know what OCD is, or do not correctly. If people truly knew what intrusive thoughts were and how harmful they can be to people’s mental state, they would take it much more seriously than how they currently do,” Cameron says. 

To reduce the stigma surrounding OCD, it’s crucial to educate others about the condition. This can include correcting misinformation or stereotypes, sharing personal stories and experiences, and promoting resources and treatment options. By raising awareness and understanding of OCD, we can help to reduce the shame and isolation that many individuals with OCD feel.

Additionally, it’s important to avoid using stigmatizing language when discussing OCD. This includes avoiding phrases such as “I’m so OCD” or “She’s so OCD” when referring to someone’s organized or detail-oriented behavior. These types of comments trivialize the severity of OCD and contribute to the notion that OCD is something to be admired or sought after.

There have been more and more social media accounts that have begun the correction of misinformation and try to help people learn and do better in a constructive way. Learning about mental disorders is essential for individuals to understand the impact of these conditions on people’s lives. It can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, promote empathy and understanding, facilitate early intervention, and get the appropriate treatment. 

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