The behaviors of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly known as OCD, can be confusing to people who don’t understand it. For those who have it, these behaviors are necessary ways of coping with day-to-day life, giving them some sense of control over a life that can feel disordered, frightening, and unmanageable.
The ways in which people who struggle with OCD behave are rooted in a complex conversation between thought and response, creating a progression that results in compulsive behaviors. The whole process is actually quite ordered and organized. It all starts with the individual’s thoughts.
What are the signs of OCD?
(behaviors that appear to be ‘excessive’ and or to the individual, ‘unavoidable’ in nature)
- Thinking Obsessively
- Washing or Cleaning
1. Thinking Obsessively
The challenges of OCD begin with obsessions – thoughts and feelings that the individual cannot stop that also cause anxiety. For example, a person with OCD might have obsessive thoughts about the fact that there are germs on everything, creating anxiety about being clean and safe from infection. Another person might feel obsessed with neatness, becoming uncomfortable and agitated if everything isn’t exactly in the place it needs to be.
As explained by the National Institute of Mental Health, these obsessive thoughts are constantly on the minds of the people who have them, driving them to compulsive behaviors undertaken in an attempt to soothe the anxiety. The behaviors that follow represent the progression of responses that people struggling with OCD might have to their obsessive thoughts.
2. Washing or Cleaning
Most people who know something about OCD are familiar with people who have washing or cleaning compulsions. This usually stems from obsessive thoughts about germs and fear of infections. In general, these people are afraid of contamination.
To help soothe their fears, people who have contamination or cleanliness obsessions engage in excessive washing and cleaning to avoid contact with germs. They may wash their hands over and over again, and use hand sanitizer in between. Often, this can lead to chapped or even bleeding skin on the hands. Other behaviors can include compulsive cleaning of the living area to ease anxieties that arise if there’s even a little bit of dust or objects are not in their proper place.
Similar to cleaning, arranging behaviors occur when a person has anxiety about things that are out of place, or about organization that is asymmetrical or seemingly haphazard. These people may spend a great deal of time and effort to make sure that items are placed properly, or that when objects are removed from an area – such as eggs from a carton – the remaining items are reorganized to create a symmetrical pattern.
As described by Beyond OCD, these people may go so far as to throw things away or buy new items to balance out an arrangement. In the egg carton example, a person with these compulsions who needs to use only one egg may throw an additional egg away to avoid having an odd number in the carton.
Related to arranging, counting behaviors often occur in those who are anxious about numbers for one reason or another. They may have obsessive thoughts about making sure everything fits into particular number patterns, as in counting everything into groups of five. If the numbers then don’t balance out, the individual becomes anxious.
Another reason for counting behavior could be that the person simply becomes focused on counting everything, becoming anxious if the numbers involved with everything that individual encounters remain unknown. For example, this person may be anxious about and unable to control the need to count all the steps climbed on a staircase, all the syllables in a word, or all the tiles on the ceiling. This constant counting can prevent the individual from being able to focus on other things at any given time, including work or school.
5. Checking, Repeating, and Reviewing
For all of the above behaviors, many people with OCD feel a continual need to check and recheck their behaviors to make sure that everything is clean, right, safe, and counted. This accounts for the continual need to wash hands over and over again, to make sure the eggs in the carton are in the right arrangement several times per day, or to count the same groups of items multiple times to make sure that they add up to the right number.
According to Psychology Today, other obsessive thoughts that this compulsive, repetitive checking behavior may apply to as well. A person might check over and over again to make sure the door is locked, or the oven is off. While some people may assume that this is due to extreme fear about the danger of these things, more often it is simply the person feeling extreme anxiety that the activity was forgotten or not completed, and that not completing it will result in some consequence.
Faced with all of these anxieties and repeated behaviors, a person who struggles with OCD may sometimes find it’s just easier and more comfortable to avoid some situations altogether. This aspect of OCD behavior is described in an article on Psych Central, and it can result in the person being unable to be involved in enjoyable activities. In fact, this avoidance can ultimately lead to further anxiety; on top of the discomfort created by the obsessive thoughts, an additional anxiety grows from the fear of encountering situations that would trigger those thoughts.
For example, a person who has an obsessive fear of getting stung by a bee might avoid spending time outside altogether. Not only is there anxiety about being stung by a bee, but anxiety has developed about being anywhere that the person might encounter a bee. This results in the person staying shut inside, unable to go out and meet with friends or engage in activities that might soothe the anxiety. It becomes a spiral that leads to greater degrees of anxiety.
Thankfully, it is possible to treat OCD, not only helping an individual to control compulsive behaviors, but also to manage the thoughts and anxieties that lead to obsessive thoughts. Through a variety of therapies, and sometimes with the help of medications, people who struggle with thinking obsessively, washing and cleaning, arranging, counting, checking, repeating, reviewing, and avoiding situations because of OCD can learn to manage their anxieties and live happier lives.