Obsessive Thinking, Compulsive Behaviors

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist

This is the 2nd article in a series of eight on obsessive-compulsive disorder

Normally, when we "wash our hands of something," it means, "Finito!"  We are done with it!  We don't go back and recheck it.  But what is it when you do it over and over again, and you are still not done with it?  Such is often the case with OCD sufferers. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be a crippling disease.  However, in other cases, OCD sufferers may lead successful lives with habits that may be annoying but not incapacitating.

OCD is known to afflict many famous and leading figures in the past as well as the present.  Dr. Samuel Johnson, accredited with compiling the first dictionary of the English language, suffered from a compulsion of "odd movements."  Johnson would perform highly ritualized movements and antics when passing over the threshold of a door.  Just before crossing the threshold, he would whirl, twist, make highly ritualized hand motions and then jump over the threshold in a long leap.  He would never step on cracks between paving stones.  When he went for a walk, he touched every post he passed.  If he missed one, he went back to touch it.

Of the modern times, Howard Hughes, the recluse billionaire and magnate of aircraft and movie industry, had an obsession with germs.  Even as a child he took extraordinary steps to safeguard against germs.  As he grew older, he would seal the doors and windows in an attempt to germ proof the house.  His attendants had to bring everything to him wrapped in a special tissue so the inside contents did not come in touch with the germs on their hands.  The sufferers with this type of OCD fear touching even their loved ones lest they are contaminated.  For excessive and irrational fear of contamination, compulsive behaviors are ritually performed to safeguard against it.  They may wash their hands over and over again for several hours a day to the expense of leisure activities, work and family obligations.

OCD has two parts, the first being obsessions, or the unwanted and unpleasant thoughts.  The second is the compulsions, or the repetitive, ritualistic behaviors performed to counter those obsessions.  Obsessions create the discomfort and compulsions attempt to reduce it.  However the relief is short-lived because obsessive thoughts soon come back requiring compulsive behaviors to be performed again.

Obsessions intrude upon one's thinking.  They may be scary, trivial or disgusting.  Common obsessions include fear of germs, fear of harming one's loved ones, doing something wrong or constantly doubting.  Most people know that their obsessional thought don't make sense.  They don't want to think those thoughts, but they are unable to ignore or suppress them.  Obsessions may be simply annoying, or they may cause severe anxiety.  Compulsions are repeated to prevent or undo a harm which a person believes may be caused by obsessional thoughts.  Compulsions can be mental or physical.  Physical compulsions consist of repetitive behaviors, such as cleaning, grooming, arranging things in order, checking, seeking reassurance and hoarding.  Mental compulsions consist of saying a prayer, repeating words or phrases in a special sequence, silently counting, labeling things over and over in one's mind to avoid harm suggested by the obesssional thoughts.

OCD is referred to as the "disease of doubt."  In some cases, it can be appropriately called a "disease of guilt."  Interestingly, the guilt is with out a cause, for in most cases about an action they have not performed and do not even have knowledge of.  They may go to the court or police station to find out if they are guilty of some crimes that have been reported.  They fear that they may have run over someone while driving, so they go back again and again to check the casualties on the road.  Fear of confessing  to something they have not done can be so real that they cannot trust themselves going anywhere alone.  They need a constant companion just to stop them from confessing to a crime they have not committed.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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