People with mental illness know all too well the intense stigma and scrutiny that comes from myths and stereotypes about their illness. So when a public figure who lives with mental illness speaks up about it, it can be a game changer for breaking stigma. And singer Camila Cabello is doing just that with her recent comments on living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In an interview with Cosmopolitan UK, she shed light on the disorder to a huge audience.
"Everybody has different ways of handling stress," she told the magazine, E! reported. "And, for me, if I get really stressed thinking about something, I'll start to have the same thought over and over again, and no matter how many times I get to the resolution, I feel like something bad is about to happen if I don't keep thinking about it." Intrusive thoughts, like what Cabello is describing, affect many people who live with OCD, but don't get nearly as much attention as other symptoms of the disorder.
Dr. Carolina Castaños, founder of therapy program MovingOn, tells Bustle that "OCD is an anxiety disorder composed of several distinct symptoms."
"OCD is not a personality quirk," Stephen Smith, founder and CEO of nOCD, an OCD self-treatment app, tells Bustle. "It's a condition that centers around unwanted thoughts that play, as [Cabello] accurately mentioned, 'over and over again'. The thoughts can be torturous at times, especially when triggered during times of stress, yet they can be effectively managed like [Cabello] said by letting go," he says.
If you've ever said, "I'm so OCD" because you straighten picture frames and hate looking at crooked tiles, you're unknowingly part of the problem. Even though OCD has become part of our daily vernacular, it's a serious condition with often-debilitating side effects. Cabello told Latina in 2017 that her OCD has been "out of control" in the past.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than two million adults in the U.S. have OCD, but the condition is still trivialized. Being clean and organized aren't symptoms of OCD, and perfectionism isn't synonymous with the disorder. Cabello says her OCD has manifested in different ways — one example she gives is checking a door multiple times because she isn't sure if she locked it. But learning about the condition has helped her recognize disordered thought patterns and "laugh" at them — a technique that is taught in acceptance and commitment therapy, according to John Hamilton, LMFT, LADC, chief clinical outreach officer at Mountainside Treatment Center. He says the often-misunderstood condition is more common than people think, and Cabello's openness can help people who are struggling.
"At the end of the day, she can live with it, but just like any other chronic disease, stress has a huge role in exacerbating symptoms. Toxic stress can actually manifest physical illness and chronic illness later in life," he tells Bustle.
Ways to treat the condition, Hamilton says, include avoiding people and places that can trigger symptoms, practicing mindfulness and deep breathing, and seeking professional help to develop healthy coping mechanisms for confronting unavoidable triggers. "Recognizing the stress triggers of OCD is very helpful for people who might not understand the diagnosis," Cynthia V. Catchings, Talkspace Therapist and LCSW, tells Bustle. "We know that stressful situations and anxiety lead to poor coping skills and negative thinking. Being informed about how stress triggers OCD, can help us understand OCD better."
Cabello also helping debunk the myth that mental illness only affects certain subsets of people. OCD and similar conditions aren't discriminatory, and people of all ages, races and backgrounds experience symptoms. "Everybody has stressors. Everybody deals with anxiety and sadness in their life. She’s normalizing that," Hamilton says. "We all experience stressful situations; however, when it is combined with OCD, knowing how to manage the anxiety, to avoid the poor coping strategies, is very important," says Catchings.
Hamilton says OCD and other mental conditions are often misunderstood because they can't be physically seen, even though the symptoms are valid. "[Mental illness is] looked at differently than diabetes, which has similar triggers and relapse rates. [...] It’s not like cancer where you see a tumor. We don’t know what goes on in the brain with mental illness." He said comments like Cabello's give hope to others. "It does challenge some of the stigma and discrimination that people feel about the unknown," he says.
Cabello is opening herself up to scrutiny by being so open about her mental health, but people who have OCD will benefit from the pop star sharing her experiences with the condition with such a large audience. It isn't a joke or a punchline, and her honesty is reminding us all of that.