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On Wednesday, I kicked off a series on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I have struggled with OCD symptoms for most of my life. Each day, I am focusing on another symptom of OCD.

Yesterday, I talked about repetitive thoughts. Today, I will focus upon repetitive actions, which are also known as rituals.

Repetitive actions are anything you feel a compulsion to do repeatedly to avoid feeling anxious. They can be simple or complex. The level to which repetitive actions interfere with your day-to-day living is what determines how severe your OCD symptoms are.

For example, I must check my alarm clock exactly three times before I go to bed. If I only check it once or twice, then I cannot fall asleep. I will obsess about whether the time is correct, even though I rarely change the time on my alarm clock. So, to get it over with, I check it exactly three times in quick succession and then go to bed without any concerns about the setting on the alarm.

Because this process only takes a couple of seconds, my symptom serves more as a quirk than a serious OCD issue. However, other people are not so lucky. There are people who must check the locks on the door exactly 17 times. If anything interferes with the process, they must start all over again. They wind up being late frequently because they must complete the ritual of checking the locks in a particular way. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

I know a woman who must clean her bathroom every day in a particular order and a particular way. If anything gets out of order or she gets interrupted, she experiences an enormous amount of anxiety and must start over. While some people might find it admirable that she keeps such a clean bathroom, the ritual is taxing on her emotionally and physically.

Unlike my alarm clock checks, which I do every day that I need to use the alarm clock, I have other rituals that come and go. One is blowing on my hands. I used to do this a lot as a child (I have no idea why), and it used to drive my parents crazy (that part amuses me!). If I am feeling triggered, I will sometimes catch myself blowing on my hands. I have no idea why I do it, only that it relieves some of the anxiety.

Even though I know that checking the alarm clock three times is unnecessary, doing it meets a need inside of myself. This is true for anyone with OCD. The ritual serves some purpose – it serves as a valve that releases some of the anxiety for a little while.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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