Misused psych terms: what do they actually mean?

The internet offers a slew of information, and people might use that information correctly while others might not. Common psychology terminology is widely spoken in everyday jargon, but those terms often lead to people misusing and misdiagnosing themselves or others.

“Some terms have entered the mainstream conversation because we know a bit about them, and maybe a bit of the actual diagnosis applies but that wouldn’t be a clinical diagnosis,” said Dr. Karen Lawson, assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. “There is enough familiarity that people have gotten from terms, and while a term may in part be used correctly, it might not match the description that an experienced mental health professional would make.”

Lawson explains the meaning of psychology-related terms and diagnoses that people often dilute online or in everyday conversation.

A person texting while drinking coffee, as seen from above.OCD

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a long-lasting condition in which a person experiences uncontrollable and recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or engages in repetitive behaviors (compulsions). This condition typically comes to the attention of a mental health professional when one’s symptoms cause significant distress or interference in social, vocational or other important areas of functioning. One example might occur when one has the compulsion to go back home to check things or lock their door excessively, making themselves late for work. One might become socially isolated to avoid others entering their space and noticing their obsessive behavior.

“If the behavior is interfering with one’s functioning enough to cause noticeable setback or distress, they would likely benefit from speaking to a mental health professional,” she said.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manifests itself when one has experienced an event that is considered more severe or terrifying than most people experience in everyday life. Examples might include experiencing war, carjacking, an attack or other kinds of abuse. Thereafter, similar sounds, smells or things that remind the person of it create the same feeling that the traumatic event did or caused.

“The harm of watering down some of these terms can occur when they are over-used if someone does suffer from a condition and it is not fully understood. They might not seek professional help or guidance when they need it,” Lawson said.


One of the most commonly misconstrued words lately is “gaslighting.” It tends to be referred to in the mainstream as blaming someone for something, but on a much deeper level, it is a manipulative tactic used by someone to gain power or control over another person. The individual doing this creates such self-doubt and uncertainty in someone that the insecurity and constant questioning of oneself that might follow can be quite destructive.

“We use terms that are familiar in conversation though they may not be used correctly,” she said. “Terms might mean different things to different people, so it’s always helpful to get more information when one is unsure of the true meaning of a psychiatric term.”


The term is a description of one’s personality who is very self-centered and who has a high sense of their own importance. These individuals need attention and constantly want others to admire them. A person with narcissism is not necessarily compassionate or concerned with how they appear to others. One might label another as a narcissist without any true behavior to support the claim. When a person is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder by a mental health specialist, it is difficult to treat.

According to Lawson, personality disorders are hard to treat, but there needs to be full acceptance, awareness and admission that they have traits that need to change.

Panic attack and anxiety

These terms are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation. A panic attack is an experience that typically comes on rather quickly, reaches a peak in about 15-30 minutes, then gradually declines. Symptoms include pounding heart, sweating, trembling or shaking, choking or feeling suffocated, detached from reality, mind going blank, feeling faint, feeling loss of control, feeling dizzy, numbness in one’s arms or legs and abdominal distress. A person may not experience all of these, but many of these symptoms are reported during a panic attack.

Anxiety might bring many of the same symptoms, but tends to be of longer, persistent duration along with chronic worry. Anxiety is more of an ongoing condition and not a short burst of symptoms like a panic attack. These conditions are related, however, and one should seek the guidance of a mental health professional if their symptoms are recurring or are of a severity that causes interference or distress in any important area of functioning.


Trauma typically refers to a serious or negative event that has happened to a person. It is important to remember that trauma is defined by the person, meaning it was traumatic to them. One person might not describe something as trauma, whereas another person does. Some examples might be domestic violence, abuse or a being in a car accident. The term also has known medical meanings such as traumatic brain injury.

“With the availability of so much information about mental health conditions, I think people are much more equipped to ask questions and to advocate for themselves,” Lawson said. “The use of common terms and concepts allows us to describe things that we previously may not have been talking about. Talking can be helpful, rather than remaining silent when something is bothering us.”

By Homa Warren

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