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Self Help - Obsessions & Compulsions

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Worrying And Checking

Do you check things more than you really feel that you need to? Are you more scrupulous about cleanliness or order than you feel you should be? Are you afraid of germs or illness? Can you not stop worrying that you might have got something wrong or that you might hurt someone? Then this page may help you understand what’s happening and point the way forward.

Everyday Concerns

When the stakes are high, people get anxious about things going wrong and it is natural to look for reassurance in some form or other. We all know of the repeated checking that occurs when people are going off on holiday. This can include checking things are switched off or locked up and that the important things like passports, wallets, purses and tickets have been remembered.

How Things Get Worse

If there is a degree of uncertainty or risk in a persons life and no simple way of making sure things will really be okay then people will inevitably start to worry. People deal with this in a whole variety of ways, they may get anxious, depressed, irritable, snappy, drink too much or avoid things, to name but a few.

Compulsions

However, some people may try and achieve a semblance of order and control by putting their energy into getting some other aspect of their life sorted out. The more energy that is put into something else then the more powerfully distracting it will be.

  • Cleaning or washing until everything's spotless or germ free.
  • Putting things in order, furniture, clothes, household items, etc.
  • Repeatedly checking switches, locks, taps, etc.

Each time something is checked, cleaned or sorted out there is a transient sense of relief followed, eventually, by more concern and a need to repeat everything once more. With time greater thoroughness is required to obtain the same degree of relief. Repeated checking and ritualised behaviour can then follow.

Obsessions

Alternatively, people may constantly worry about things or live in fear that something may go wrong. These worrying thoughts may be about:

  • health concerns, most commonly cancer and heart problems.
  • a fear of contamination from virus, germs or bacteria.
  • thoughts or actions, which might cause harm to come to others.

Health worries, such as a fear of cancer or heart problems, are relatively common. These often develop after a person has had to cope with the loss of people close to them. In addition, people are more likely to worry when it is difficult to obtain reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Unfortunately it is impossible to provide rock solid guarantees for some things. HIV and BSE are two examples of conditions which can be proved to exist, but you cannot prove that someone has not got these conditions. Many things are like this and the fact of the matter is that you can never prove, absolutely, that something does not exist; you can only prove that things do exist. Think about the Loch Ness Monster or Martians... can you prove that they do not exist? The phrase used for this is that you cannot disprove a negative. It is within this vacuum that worrying thoughts tend to thrive.

Vicious Circles

Obsessive worrying or compulsions can create vicious circles. The more attention that is paid to a thing the more aware the person becomes of the finer detail. Worrying thoughts become more worrying and compulsive behaviour becomes more compulsive or elaborate. What started in a relatively small way can come to occupy too much of a persons time and energy. The transient relief obtained in the short-term fuels the compulsion to repeat the behaviour again and again and the worrier ends up with more to worry about.

What To Do

If you are not troubled by your worries or compulsions and have no wish to change things then you do not have to do anything different. However, often people find that they are spending too much time being obsessed or the demands in their life increase to a point where they can no longer keep up the same level of activity. Similarly parents find that as their children grow up and become more independent this then places them under pressure to change.

Whatever your reasons for feeling the need to change the general principles are the same. If you know why the obsessive behaviour started in the first place it may well help to talk this over with someone.

In relation to the behaviour itself you, firstly, need to develop some coping strategies to help you through the periods of time when you're trying to resist an urge to do something. Relaxation techniques are particularly useful in this respect as are positive statements and distraction. Secondly, you need to start changing your behaviour, but do make it easy on yourself. Initially aim to change something that you know is manageable yet also has a degree of difficulty associated with it. Having identified a reasonable aim you need to resist the urge to act in your usual manner. Only move on to tackle another goal once you have become comfortable with the previous one.

Obsessions Further Reading

Books

Stop Obsessing! How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions
Edna B. Foa, Reid Wilson

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Understanding Obsessions and Compulsions
Frank Tallis

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