On the Lookout for Sneaky Compulsions!
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Okay wow, first of all I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who responded to my call out for sneaky compulsions (there’s a more thorough thank you section at the bottom of this post). I had more messages than I could have dreamed of so THANK YOU for getting in touch. I know it’s not always easy to talk about some of the sneakier, more challenging/embarrassing compulsions, and some of you who got in touch said it was the first time you’d shared them with anyone, so I really appreciate you trusting me and sharing that information. I will of course protect identities throughout this post!
So, where to Start?
This post is a little different from my normal posts. I tend to focus on things I’ve experienced, addressed and reflected on. This time it's different because I’m writing about something that is affecting me now.
I know I’ll have quite a few new readers for this blog so I’ll just give a bit of information about my history with OCD and what prompted me to write this post. If you know it already please feel free to jump down to 'What are Sneaky Compulsions?' and get to the most helpful information faster!
A Brief History of my Experiences with OCD
There's loads of information about my experiences with OCD throughout the website, but just as a quick summary... I've had OCD since childhood. It's change a lot over the years; it's come and gone, it's focus has shifted. My symptoms have always had one thing in common though, and that's keeping my loved ones safe. And, naturally, since having my son in 2012, it’s focussed on him. Again, there's way more detail about this time here (or if you'd prefer to listen to it, here) but for now you only really need to know that after my sons birth, I spent the biggest part of 18 months in a mental health crisis, living with undiagnosed perinatal OCD. For the first time, I was introduced to deliberate harm-based intrusive thoughts and I became very, very poorly.
Over the years, my symptoms have got so much better; I've had CBT and ERP with a brilliant therapist, taken medication on and off, focussed heavily on self care and I’m pleased to say I've been living pretty much a normal life. I know my condition so well that I expected some issues during the Coronavirus outbreak, I was ready for them. I knew I’d have the ability to recognise my symptoms, address them and move one. Or so I thought…
The Impact of Corona Virus on my Symptoms
One of my major checks at night was making sure the babygate was shut and secure. It was such a problem for me it's actually got it's own post here! My son stopped needing a babygate about a year ago, and so for a while I was without that bedtime check. Things started to get back to normal and I started to sleep better. But of course OCD doesn’t usually worry about a small problem like a babygate being removed, and as soon as the Coronavirus hit, my worries morphed, and I started to obsess about there being a trip hazard at the top of the stairs.
Because I know the way OCD works for me, I recognised it pretty early on and experience allowed me to identify both the obsessions and compulsions.
This is what was happening:
- intrusive thoughts – son hurting himself – images, sounds
- doubts about his safety
- doubts about my checking
- checking for items at the top of the stairs
- having an order in which I check things.
- analysing staircase
- mentally reviewing/analysing how likely he would be to fall, hurt himself.
Look. At. That!! I’ve even managed to catch internal compulsions! That’s how well I know OCD. Right? Wrong. There was more to it than that!
First Noticing Sneaky Compulsions
I've always known I've done weird things with my breathing and eyes when checking - I just didn’t realise they were compulsions.
This is what I do (and hopefully those of you who felt embarrassed by your compulsions will realise you are not alone!)
- I hold my breath as a way of trying to secure the scene – to make the image 'go in'.
- I blink and try to focus and refocus my eyes for the same reason.
- I can’t do it if I need a wee. If my bladder feels like it holds the smallest drop, I have to empty it.
- I tense my muscles to help reset my eyesight.
- I bite my lips as a way of helping me ‘ground’ myself and make sure I'm present.
So there you go! I’ve spent ages over the years going through exposures that focus on those initial obvious compulsions but the sneaky ones didn’t get a look in. They weren’t in the exposure hierarchy I created for myself because I didn’t realise I was doing them.
What are Sneaky Compulsions?
We know that OCD is sneaky and in terms of compulsions, it seems they can be sneaky in three main ways.
1) So small you could miss them compulsions - Just see my example above! Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky!
2) Hidden compulsions - We know internal compulsions are sneaky. Those that involve mental review and analysis. Usually done with no visible sign at all.
3) We also know OCD can make us sneaky - where we try to convince others (and ourselves sometimes!) that we're not doing a compulsion while we're doing a compulsion. I’ve lost count of the amount of times in the past that I’ve asked Pete to do x,y or z in the kitchen when in fact in hoping he’ll notice if the tap’s running or if the hob’s on. I made sure the word check wasn’t in the request too because I knew he would usually flat out refuse. He knows a lot about OCD and would know I’m using him for reassurance. There's loads of little tricks like this!
So there we go! The three main types of sneaky compulsion. I've been effected by all three at some point and it seems I’m not the only one! OCD can make us seriously creative! 😊
You Are Not Alone!
I reckon I’ve had about one hundred and fifty messages about compulsions over the past couple of weeks. As well as feeling extremely grateful, I also recognise I'm in an amazing position to hear from so many others because it makes me realise just how not alone I am. And although seeking reassurance is not helpful for us, and we’re not really supposed to offer reassurance to each other, I absolutely want to tell you that you're not alone. The sheer number of compulsions and the similarities between them is immense - we are all very much in this together!
I've compiled a list of the sneaky compulsions I've heard from people, but before we get to that, it's really important we discuss certain aspects first.
Compulsion, Self-care, Self-soothing or even Healthy Habit?
The majority of the behaviours on the list below can be carried out by people without OCD. They can be used in healthy ways. Take talking to yourself for example. Loads of people do it. It’s a way of self-soothing. It’s a way of encouraging yourself, evaluating things, keeping yourself company, thinking things through, practicing speeches, easing loneliness, breaking the silence, and loads more. People even do it to try to convince themselves of something and talk themselves into things! They argue with themselves. Evaluate things. They swear or curse to let of steam! Just doing any of the behaviours listed below does not make it a compulsion.
How to Recognise Compulsions
Identifying our sneaky compulsions helps to disrupt the OCD cycle which is great. But to be able to do that, we need to be able to recognise whether or not they actually are compulsions, and that's not always easy. There's also very rarely any certainty (and we all love a bit of that!). In terms of compulsions, it's not just WHAT we are doing, but WHY we are doing it.
A good way of trying to recognise if something is a compulsion is to ask:
- How much time does it takes up?
- How distressing am I finding it?
- Is my behaviour driven by anxiety? Is it rational?
- Do I get anxious if I don't do it?
- What are we hoping will be the result?
- How much is this effecting my day to day living? Is it making me late for things?
- Is it effecting my sleep? My rest time?
- Am I distracted by it? How is my focus?
- Is it stopping me doing other things, including things I enjoy?
- Does it take up more and more of my time?
- Is it having more of an impact on my life as time goes by?
And I can add these as a result of looking through the list of compulsions you sent through. Does it involve:
- seeking reassurance?
- controlling outcomes?
- a hunt for certainty? (there's more below)
So, just as a reminder, before you check out the list please bare in mind the why behind the behaviour or mental processes and not just the what.
Making sure we use the compulsion list a helpful way.
It's important that we keep in mind that for those of us with OCD 'keeping an eye out' for compulsions could become a compulsion in itself - it would be easy for us to fall into a habit of checking for compulsions.
It's also important that we try not to use the list for reassurance seeking and comparison purposes. It's good to know that we're not alone but a quick glimpse at the list will tell us that. A slightly longer look will help us identify some of our own, or similar compulsions, but please be aware of how long you're using that information and why you're using it.
Please remember to use the 'How to Recognise Compulsions' questions mentioned above to help ensure that being mindful of sneaky compulsions remains a helpful, and healthy, activity that aids our recovery.
Finally, here it is!
I've tried to split the various compulsions into groups to make them easily identifiable but it backfired because there's a lot of crossover but generally speaking each behaviour can be slotted into one of the following general areas:
- ways of making checking ‘more effective’
- monitoring and assessing, reassurance
- trying to ground self
- hunt for certainty
And here's the more specific list...
- analysing self and others
- ‘Tricking’ others into giving reassurance
- collecting evidence
- looking things up
- chat rooms, forums,
- reading about advocates, charities
- emailing people
- comparing stories to other peoples
- researching through books, internet, Facebook chat rooms, blogs
- hugging people and ensuring they’re okay
- advocates using their work
- people using professionals and advocates for reassurance
- avoiding people, place, feelings, thoughts
- stopping short of completing something
- avoiding silence – making noises etc
- for health reasons – pulse rate
- for signs of arousal (let’s not forget Chrissie Hodges’ ‘Groinal’) and attraction
- tensing parts of body
- specific eye movements
- mouth movements
- gently biting/scratching to ground self or 'reset'
- shifting weight
- holding body in certain positions.
- yawning to stop feelings.
- turning in a certain way to get things
- breathing in as walking through doorways
- amount of exercise, steps
- food eaten
- fruit and veg intake
- junk food intake
- assessing others and own feelings and behaviour – changing behaviour as a result.
- testing memories
- mental processes
- other people. Are they okay? Are they hurt? What did that mean? How are they feeling?
- eye contact levels with people
- collecting evidence of feelings and emotions – own and others
- having discussion either mentally or verbally with self
- scanning for hyper vigilance
- comparing behaviour/ thoughts to core values
- WHO AM I???
- what’s my reality?
- do I love them?
- will I hurt them?
- Do I really want to do that?
- analysing questions and the reasons for questions
- should I be asking this? What might the answers be? How would that affect me?
- analysing results. What happened? How can I do things better next time?
Feeling just right
- waiting for ‘good times’ or when experiencing ‘good feelings’ to do things
- play computer games
- moving body
- saying things
- blinking hard
- making loud sudden noises (disguise as singing)
- tapping rhythms
- jumping quickly into conversations
- using phone as distraction
- using the work of OCD advocates and that can be bloggers and advocates too!
Trying to figure things out/ control
- trying to get to bottom of events, feelings behaviours
- how can I stop that happening?
- trying to guarantee mental well being and safety of others.
- hyper vigilance
- only selecting certain objects to use, journeys to take
- choosing 'safe' options
- taking screen shots/pictures
- repeating ‘checking’ routes - on foot, in car.
- rereading text conversations
- checking everything and anything
- changing behaviour to rationalise thoughts.
- rationalise decisions and choices – especially about why you’re not doing a compulsion (when you are doing sneaky ones!)
Okay, I'm going to stop there! One of the first people I heard back from about this post was the wonderful Mark Freeman. As well as giving some brilliant ideas about compulsions he mentioned that the list would probably go on indefinitely and he wasn't wrong! I could still be listing compulsions this time next year, but hopefully the list above will help you to identify variations too.
There's lots of additional ways the compulsions can be sneaky too. A lot of you described things like 'relaxing' with your hand on your neck when you're actually counting your pulse rate. I didn't list all of these examples here because they're very specific to the individual but it's well worth considering if you are doing things like this too.
I think it's really important that we look at this list with a whole lot of love and compassion. We are carrying out these compulsions because OCD tells us it's how we keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. It's how we avoid (or try to avoid) disaster. It makes sense that over time, as we learn more and more about OCD, that it will need to adapt and find sneakier ways of getting us to carry out compulsions. The best thing we can do is to be mindful of them and challenge them where necessary.
Please, please, please make sure you refer back to the 'How to recognise compulsions' and 'Making sure we use the compulsion list in a helpful way' sections above - they hold really important information for us. 😊
And now to the specific thank yous! I’ve deliberately only included professionals and advocates here but if you’d like to be named or if I’ve forgotten you please let me know and I’ll add you as soon as I can!
Just as a final note - I asked some pretty amazing people to read through this for me and check for factual accuracy. I take writing this sort of post very seriously. If you think something needs to be altered please let me know.
Right, that's it. I'm off for a lie down!
Lots of love everyone and good luck catching those sneaky compulsions!
Feeling overwhelmed by compulsions? Read about baby steps towards recovery and feeling better here.
Read another post about building up your defenses here.