Compulsive behavior is defined as the irresistible urge, often against one’s conscious wishes, to do something. In psychology, the term is often teamed with the word “Obsessive” such as in “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” (OCD, for short). People who suffer from this disorder are addicted to uncontrollable and irrational behaviors that disrupt their lives on many levels.
Below, I will discuss the case history of Betty, a 42-year old writer who had a “checking” compulsion. This is a classic example of the disorder but it can result in any similar behavior, like excessively washing one’s hands or cleaning the house. But don’t confuse this type of behavior with all the anti-flu hand washing advice doctors give out these days. A compulsive disorder like this goes far beyond that simple advice.
For example, compulsions may include counting things like footsteps or objects in specific ways or doing any number of other repetitive actions, from dozens of times in a row to perhaps hundreds. People might feel compelled to clear their throats, repeatedly check that their doors are locked, turn lights on and off, open and shut windows or doors repeatedly, touch objects a certain number of times or walk in a certain pattern. If you ever watched the TV show “Monk”, about a dysfunctional detective prone to the disorder, you’ll recognize the vast array of OCD behaviors people may display.
Causes of OCD: Tied to Anxiety:
Some people act compulsively in order to relieve the anxiety stemming from certain obsessive thoughts. These people may feel that performing these repetitive actions will somehow prevent a horrible event from occurring or that it will force the event from their minds. Whatever the motive, the sufferer’s reasoning is so distorted that it results in significant distress for the sufferer or to those around them.
The disorder has also been linked to abnormalities with the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical substance in the body thought to have a role in regulating anxiety.
Case History: Betty and Her OCD:
Betty was a rather large woman with a wonderful smile and a king size jar of Sanka instant coffee, so she would never run out. Betty told me that she suffered from a checking compulsion. She was compelled to check things over and over. Just before bed, she would check the gas stove 20-30 times to make sure she had turned it off. She checked the front door 10-15 times to make sure she didn’t leave it unlocked. She never saw a movie all they way through, because every few minutes she’d feel the urge to check the floor to make sure she hadn’t dropped anything on it. And that was just her evening routine. During the day, she checked many other things she did both inside and outside the house.
As you can imagine, this bizarre behavior disrupted her life dramatically, preventing her from doing many other “normal” things and living her life to its fullest. It also kept her from having friends because she never had the time to develop her social life. So, what could be the cause of her particular problem? I found a clue in Betty’s own admission, that she lacked confidence in things.
Resolution Goals – Building Confidence, Staying Calm & Focused:
I could tell from what Betty told me and how she expressed herself that she was more “right brain suggestible”, so I started working with her using about 75% more literal suggestions in a relaxed state, with 25% of the suggestions being more implied. For more on Learning Types and Suggestibility check out my article on ‘Left-Right Brain Learning Process’.
I spent much time working on Betty’s imagination, using different situations where I would describe how she would be getting ready for bed and she only needed to check the stove and door a few times. I wouldn’t tell her not to check things at all but to see herself checking things fewer times. When I talked to her before having her sit in the recliner to relax, I would tell her only once or twice that she would have success with my process, but would also ask her how it was going to feel having this problem behind her. I had her describe in great detail how it was going to feel, as if she were watching a movie from beginning to end.
With Betty, she didn’t know what started the problem and it turned out that it didn’t really matter. She resolved the issue in about 6 months time.
Conscious and Subconscious Minds Working Together:
For Betty, along with the subconscious reinforcement, I used what is called Exposure and Ritual Prevention. This technique involves gradually learning to tolerate the anxiety associated with not performing the ritual behavior to prevent it. For example, touching something only mildly contaminated if this is the kind of thing that causes you anxiety. That’s the “exposure”. The “ritual prevention” would be not washing your hands. Or if the anxiety is caused by the need to check door locks repeatedly, you work toward doing the ritual only once (exposure) without checking over and over again (ritual prevention). In working this way, a person becomes accustomed to the anxiety-producing situation but notes that the level of anxiety has dropped. They can then progress toward fewer checks or less washing, as the case may be.
Again, subconscious reinforcement is absolutely necessary to change these kinds of habits.