Obsessions and Compulsions

NOTE: This information on obsessions and compulsions is a sample adapted from my book Thaw - Freedom from Frozen Feelings.

What are the differences between addictions, obsessions and compulsions? Functionally (i.e., what they do) there is not much difference. However, structurally (i.e., how they do what they do) there are some differences. Addictions, obsessions, and compulsions have the same function in common –- they all serve to distract one’s attention away from something else, usually something subconsciously perceived as too uncomfortable to know or experience, such as inner pain. Let’s review the definitions of each to find out how they compare:

  • Addiction: An unhealthy, primary (love and trust) relationship with an object or an event that produces a desired mood swing. (Adapted from Craig Nakkan’s definition)
  • Obsession: The uncontrollable persistence of an idea or emotion in the mind sometimes associated with a psychiatric disorder. (Encarta English Dictionary)
  • Compulsion: A psychological and usually irrational force that compels somebody to do something, often unwillingly. (Encarta English Dictionary)

What are Obsessions and Compulsions?

Thaw - Freedom from Frozen Feelings

The terms obbessions and compulsions often invoke the condition referred to as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But most often these unwanted thoughts and behaviors do not meet criteria for the diagnosis of OCD. They can exist by themselves as annoying, habitual, and sometimes destructive or dysfunctional patterns that can interfere with major life areas such as career, finances, and relationships. They can also be component parts of other syndromes or disorders such as addiction or Adult/Child Syndrome.

All addictions have obsessions and compulsions as component parts of their structure. In other words, they are a part of the system that makes up an addiction. Obsessions, on the other hand, can stand alone as persistent, unwanted thoughts and feelings. Compulsions cannot stand alone; they are unwanted behaviors that must, at a minimum, be preceded by persistent unwanted thoughts and feelings. Obsessions about doing something can be thought of as "mind movies" that, when entertained, eventually create an ever-increasing, irresistible urge to act-out the focus of the obsession. Thus, a compulsion is born from the obsession.

Even though compulsions require a period of obsession, compulsive "acting-out" is not always the inevitable outcome of an obsession. When the content of an obsession does not include a compulsion to do something externally, such as counting or checking, but instead have a fear or worry as their focus then compulsively "acting-in" is frequently the result. In these cases, the obsession may be unwanted ideas and feelings that become so persistent and pervasive that they leave room for little else. The functional outcome is that a distraction occurs that keeps the mind so occupied that nothing else can break into awareness–such as surfacing memories of trauma and/or painful emotions of abandonment or shame.

Addiction vs. Obsessions and Compulsions?

A difference between addiction and obsessions/compulsions is that in the latter there is little, if any, desired mood swing. In other words, there is little or no real payoff except to say that a certain amount of normalcy is restored when giving in to the thoughts or behavior (which is technically a desired mood swing). With an addiction, in the beginning there is an intense, very noticeable desired mood swing toward what is often called a "high feeling." No such intoxicating feeling occurs with obsessions and compulsions because the relief is in the distraction away from an undesired mood swing rather than toward the production of a desired mood such as a high feeling or intoxicating effect.

When an addiction has reached the end stages, there is very little "payoff", which leads the addict/alcoholic to continue the addictive activity as a means of trying to feel normal. At that point, it is this author’s opinion that the "addiction" then fits better into the category of an obsession and compulsion because the desired mood swing is no longer available and the addict only continues the behavior in order to avoid undesired mood swings.

A final point about obsession and compulsions is that they may simply be habits left over from childhood. In these cases, the need to distract one’s self in the here-and-now is not the function. In fact, when the obsessive and compulsive behavior serves no functional purpose in the here-and-now it is simply a habit.

The obsessive/compulsive behavior was likely developed in childhood as a way of attempting to have some control over their environment. However, when obsessions and compulsions exist within the context of the other things outlined in Thaw - Freedom from Frozen Feelings it is highly probable that they are habits learned in childhood that continue to be employed here-and-now to distract on away from other issues such as abandonment, shame and contempt.

Children creatively learn survival skills to protect themselves when they grow up in an emotionally or physically unsafe family. Such a family provides the backdrop for the development of addictions, obsessions and compulsions. In the first part of the Iceberg Model, we discussed what happens when childhood dependency needs for safety go unmet. As we explored in Chapter 1 of "Thaw", if a child does not feel safe, she cannot relax. She is always on guard, scanning her environment for danger. Her anxiety level is very high, and she has to stay alert and “tuned in” to everything going on around her causing her to become hyper-vigilant, hyper-alert, and/or hyper-sensitive.

It is this hyper-vigilance and the internal resources of a child that creates such obsessions and compulsions as counting, checking, hoarding, worrying, repeating, etc. When we practice something repeatedly we get better and better at it because it becomes more and more ingrained in our neural circuitry.

The Bad News...the more time we spend covering the same habitual, obesessive thoughts, the less time we are spending on LEARNING SOMETHING NEW which is the only way to promote neurogenisis (Brain Growth!) and you may have heard the saying "Use it or Lose it!" The Good News... Anything that has been learned, including habitual and obsessive thoughts can be replaced with new learning...

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