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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a diagnosis about which there is much written. Often this condition is depicted in its most extreme circumstances, such as constant checking, repeated hand washing, or a preference to all things symmetrical or color-coded.
However, more prevalent are the less extreme obsessive-compulsive tendencies that many people experience. Although less severe, many people without a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder find that they are plagued with obsessive thinking or compulsive actions that interfere with their quality of life and serenity.
When OCD Strikes - Tendencies, History and Patterns
People often find that these tendencies show themselves more in times of psychological, emotional, spiritual, or physical stress. They may also find that these feelings are not as taxing when they are in a good place mentally, whether that be for a week, month, or a year. Regardless, obsessive-compulsive tendencies are very common aspects of the human condition that take a toll on our thoughts, behaviors, and general well-being.
OCD tendencies are often triggered when people experience the feelings of fear, anxiety, and powerlessness that life often throws their way. These feelings can be the result of a multitude of circumstances, such as childhood trauma, or events that are completely external, such as losing a job or interacting with others, which can bring up emotions that are difficult to manage. Experiences such as these can cause a person’s life to feel out of order, thus raising his or her anxiety levels.
Obsessive-compulsive tendencies become coping strategies to aid people in attempting to reduce that anxiety and maintain feelings of control in their lives. However, these strategies are ultimately ineffective, and become part of a vicious cycle that results in feeling out of control. This pattern eventually becomes entirely distressing, and many people begin to feel that their obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions are controlling them.
Why Being Aware of Obsessive Thought Patterns is Crucial to Understanding and Tackling OCD
A very common aspect of OCD is the obsessive thought patterns that many people experience. Real life circumstances such as money issues, stress at work, or difficulties that occur when interacting with others often illicit feelings of fear or anxiety. When this happens, many find themselves unable to get the predicament off their mind. They may also have trouble sleeping as they constantly rework what happened in their minds.
However, these thoughts are not necessarily about solving the problem at hand, but are more of a worry loop. Ultimately, many people find that they get themselves caught in a never-ending spiral of patterned thinking that is very difficult to break away from.
I often relate my clients’ obsessive thought patterns to an experience I had when I went tubing with friends in a river. I became detached from my group and got caught in a current that took me around and around in circles. This is what obsessive thinking feels like to many people: a pattern of thoughts that takes them in the same circles again and again.
How and Why Informed, Compassionate psychotherapy Can Help
Although obsessive thought patterns can cause many to feel distressed or hopeless, therapy provides tools to help people work through and change these patterns. When obsessive thought patterns begin to show themselves, it is common for people to be completely preoccupied by these loops of thought, so much so that they can be completely unaware of them. By attempting to tune into these thoughts, people can become more conscious of these patterns.
This is the first step toward understanding why their minds organize their thoughts in such a way and to help them realign these processes of thinking. psychotherapy can help people to restructure their thoughts and find ways to identify those that are hurting them from those that are helping them.
For instance, thought-stopping techniques have helped many of my clients to quiet the internal noise they experience. One way to do this is to become more aware of these types of obsessive thought patterns. When one has an obsessive thought pattern, they remind themselves that these thoughts are hurting them, rather than helping them.
With the help of a qualified therapist, people find that they can re-train their thoughts by replacing harmful ones with those that are self-compassionate and helpful. This technique has helped many of my clients to manage this internal chatter.
Tackling Obsessive Compulsive Behavior
Obsessive thinking also leads many to struggle with compulsive behavior, the second piece of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When obsessive loops of thought are experienced, there is a great deal of mental energy behind them.
A conflict that results in feelings of fear, anxiety, powerlessness, or obsessive thoughts often leave people feeling the strong urge or compulsion to do something about it, as opposed to waiting for a better time or finding a better solution to the problem at hand. As time goes on, my experience has opened me to more and more people who find their compulsive behavior is related to technology such as cell phones and email. This is a good example of how some behavior may begin to cross the line into a compulsion. A stockbroker may need to check his voicemail or email frequently, but the compulsion component comes in when it becomes more frequently than is required, and when not doing so results in feelings of anxiety. I have helped one client to manage such a compulsion by encouraging him to stretch the time between checking from five minutes to ten minutes, and so on.
Compulsive behavior also becomes strongly ingrained into people’s patterns of behavior, making it very difficult to break away from them on their own. My experience introduced me to a client who was unable to enjoy a book from beginning to end. He felt an uncontrollable need to skip to the end of a book and find out the conclusion before he could read them. This compulsion held him back from being able to enjoy reading a book. His strong need to know what the ending would be was a metaphor for how he felt about and handled many situations in his life. Constant worries about the future stopped him from enjoying life in the moment.
When feelings of anxiety show themselves due to such fear and worry, compulsive behavior often helps at first to alleviate these feelings. However, like obsessive thoughts, compulsive actions can eventually become a loop of anxiety, through which nothing is truly solved. They become just as destructive as the obsessive thoughts they attempt to control.
therapy can help people to tolerate the feelings of fear, anxiety, and powerlessness they may experience, and work toward freeing themselves from the web of obsession and compulsion. By learning how to better cope with these feelings, a person can work through instead of suppressing them with ineffective techniques. Part of my work is to help my clients to develop the ability to deal with these feelings that life inevitably brings, and to learn how to better cope with them by finding truly meaningful solutions. By learning to apply these important techniques with the help of a qualified psychotherapist, people become more able to enjoy life in the moment, freeing themselves from these circular obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
By Kathleen Dwyer Blair, LCSW, BCD