How to Manage Obsessions and Compulsions
Compulsions are symptoms of anxiety that recursively create the anxiety that drives it. A compulsion often feels like pressure that builds up inside and pushes out. The pressure is built up of anxiety. The mind tells the body that the pressure will be released if the compulsion is carried out. When the compulsion is carried out, there is a release of the anxiety, but it is not long lasting.
The release of anxiety that occurs when the compulsion is performed, acts as a reinforcer. The body learns that the compulsion will release the anxiety. The body then seeks the compulsion. The body is rewarded every time a release occurs.
Often the compulsion is made up of a set of behaviors that are logical in nature; such as the need to wash hands, check locks, hang up the phone, or check a balance sheet. The behaviors become illogical and compulsory when the body seeks to perform the behaviors multiple times a day as a way to momentarily decrease anxiety.
There is nothing wrong with performing a logical compulsory behavior. For example, there is nothing wrong with washing hands. Checking locks is a good idea. Making sure the phone is hung up, is a smart practice. There is something wrong with compulsory behaviors if the behavior is performed as a means to satisfy the build up of anxiety.
One way to prevent the compulsive act from reinforcing the compulsion is to take time out to decrease the anxiety, before performing the act. This ensures that accomplishing the act does not reinforce the feeling that compulsion performance decreases anxiety. Taking time to relax the body, before performing an otherwise compulsory action, allows the person to teach the body to relax using healthier means.
The compulsion is driven by the anxiety. If you get rid of the anxiety, the compulsion will become manageable. Once it is manageable, you will be able to set boundaries with yourself about when, how much, and where you will perform the compulsion. It is important to take an inventory of anxiety provoking issues in your life and work on decreasing them. It is also important to take time to add behaviors that will strengthen your ability to manage anxiety. These behaviors are things like meditation, exercising, eating healthy, getting sleep, and not responding to drama.
Fear Verses Acceptance
An obsession occurs as a person develops an unreasonable fear. The fear is usually about a problem that cannot be solved. This is often a moral dilemma. It is sometimes a fear of committing an immoral act. It is sometimes the unreasonable fear of physical injury. Whatever the obsession is about, it is about something that cannot be permanently resolved. The person desperately wants the anxiety that is being provoked by the fear to go away. The extreme discomfort of the anxiety pressures the person to ruminate and obsess over the dilemma. The more the person ruminates about the dilemma, the more the anxiety builds. The more the anxiety builds, the more the person feels pressure to ruminate about the dilemma.
Fear Verses Acceptance
An obsession can be kept alive by the person fearing it. When a person fears an obsession, he feels anxious about it. When a person accepts that the obsession could occur and the person makes peace with the probable outcome, the fear decreases. When the fear decreases, the anxiety decreases. When the anxiety decreases, the need to ruminate decreases.
Soothing Verses Problem Solving
An obsession can also be kept alive by constantly talking about it. Some people deal with obsessions by talking to friends and family for hours about their fear. Talking about the fear can bring momentary release, but it also perpetuates the amount of time the mind spends thinking and worrying about the obsession. If a person spends a lot of time describing how bad the problem is, without coming to a resolution, the person could perpetuate the fear.
There is nothing wrong with talking out problems with others. It is helpful to talk about problems out loud. Doing so can make it easier to organize thoughts and look for solutions. An obsession does not have a solution. Talking about it does not resolve anything. It may bring temporary relief to hear a friend tell you, “it’s going to be okay,” but that relief will vanish quickly and as anxiety builds up you will drastically need to hear it again.
Physical Care Verses Physical Scare
An obsession can also be kept alive when the obsession is unsolvable and the person performs constant drastic measures to try and solve it. A person with a fear of an unsubstantiated illness may feel the need to constantly check his pulse and blood pressure. It is healthy for a person to perform check ups. It is not healthy to perform check-ups as a means to decrease anxiety. A person may feel momentary relief once the check-up is performed, but the build up of the obsession will quickly return resulting in a strong desire to get constant check-ups. The frantic search for solutions will perpetuate the fear. Searching for solutions in a calm manner is healthy. Frantic solution searching is not calming and perpetuates a feeling of urgency and anxiety.
A person may feel the need to check on a the safety of a loved one. Doing so is perfectly healthy. Checking on a loved one in order to decrease fear can result in perpetuating the fear. It is often helpful to first calm the mind and the body, before taking preventative actions.
Immediacy Verses Waiting
Obsessions thrive on immediacy. Waiting kills them. If a person takes action to prevent or act on an obsession when they feel the sense of immediacy, it can reinforce the obsession. People find it helpful to make a 24 hour rule. If they have an obsession, they will not act on it, argue with themselves about it, or talk to others about it for 24 hours. After 24 hours of not thinking about it, people are usually calm and can rationally decide what to do with the obsessive thoughts. Other people with obsessions prefer to go an entire week before they allow themselves to reason with the obsession. They notice that at the end of the week, the obsession doesn’t have a pull on them anymore.
Obsessions that are overbearing are not easily controlled. They are hard to master by the mental gymnastics alone. A person must also be taking care of yourself physically. A person will need to eat healthy, exercise, and get adequate sleep. Decreasing or eliminating any other stressors that are current will also make it easier to deal with the stressor of the obsession.