Why People with OCD Give Into their ‘Irrationalities’

I have got OCD. That is to say: I have intrusive thoughts flying into my head, which create anxiety, sparking in me the urge to perform certain actions (‘compulsions’), that relieve me of the anxiety. What kind of thoughts am I talking about? Well, it’s hard to explain. Fore example: whenever I touch something, let’s say a book, I have to have a certain ‘image’ in mind – usually of someone I look up to. Also, I have to do the ‘touch-don’t touch’ ritual a certain number of times. Not any number of course! No, only the numbers that ‘are right’. This is not an exact science, but the numbers are always even (unless it’s one, which is always good!), but not any even number will do…Makes sense right?

Is this weird? Absolutely. Would I die if I wouldn’t give into the urges? Absolutely not. Why then do I do it? Am I stupid? Or to put it differently: is it irrational to give into these urges?

My first response would be: ‘Yes, this is very irrational.’ I perform certain actions which don’t add any value to my life. It is not like baking a cake, washing your car or taking a shower: activities that actually provide you with some sort of tangible effect. But it is even worse that: because besides the fact that my compulsions don’t add any value, they actually take (an awful long) time and energy. So actually it is very stupid to give into the urges. So why then do I do it? Am I stupid?

Well, it is actually very easy to explain…to those who smoke. If you are a smoker, you, after let’s say two hours of not-smoking, feel the urge to smoke. If you don’t give into that urge, you will get nervous, irritable, you cannot focus, and more. You know that smoking doesn’t add any value to your life; hell no, it’s even bad for you! Yet, even though you know this, you give into your urge to smoke, and take a cigarette. Why? Because in the short term, it’s the best thing to do. One more cigarette won’t harm you that much, while not taking the cigarette does harm you significantly – you get nervous, irritable, and you cannot put your mind to those issues you want to focus on, etc.

It’s the same with OCD. Let’s say I touch a book and put it away. Then I feel the urge to do this with a ‘good image’ in mind. Not giving into the urge makes me feel like there is a lock on my brain, like my cognitive capacities are severely limited, like I cannot think clearly (sounds familiar smokers?). This feeling is so unpleasant, that – even though I know it won’t add any value in the long term (if will even detract value due to the time and energy it takes) – I do the compulsion to get rid of the unpleasantness.

Furthermore, just like smoking, OCD is addictive. You either don’t do it, or you do it big time. For if you give into the urge, the urge will become stronger, and it will be harder to resist. But in case you don’t give in, the urge will get less and less. But in order not to give in, you have to resist the unpleasantness of the moment, and – as I explained above – that always seems the sup-optimal option.

But back to the question I asked at the start: is it irrational to give into the urges? Especially given that I know it won’t add any value to my  life? I say – and I have been ridiculed for this by my psychiatrist – it is not irrational. Because at each point in time, not giving into the urge leaves me with a bad feeling: an unpleasant feeling, a restriction on my thinking, that I don’t want. This feeling can literally last for hours, or even an entire day. Giving into the urge clears me of this bad feeling. And – even though the activity takes time and effort – that takes much less time and energy than that the negative feeling makes me feel bad. The only problem is that I know that, within now and a couple of seconds after having given into the urge, the next urge will be there, to which I will have to give in again…

Welcome inside of the mind of someone with OCD.

What do you think: is it utterly irrational to give in to the urges? Or would you say that – given the short term relief of the negative feeling – it is actually a rational thing to do?

Written by Rob Graumans

2 thoughts on “Why People with OCD Give Into their ‘Irrationalities’

  1. It is irrational. And the smoker analogy is false. Nicotine withdrawal
    is very real and rational. OCD symptoms are irrational and completely invented in the sufferers mind. By performing the compulsion instead of resisting and letting the feelings wash over you, you are empowering OCD. There can be no compromise. If the thought is irrational, you must not perform the compulsion. End of story. I’m currently in the middle of CBT and it can sometimes feel like you’re going to crack and have a complete breakdown, but it works. Every time. Without fail. I have given in with some of the compulsions and the OCD comes back stronger. Every time. I feel for you. I have good days and bad. But the good days are growing in number and the bad days are shrinking. Don’t give in

    • Dear Kazza,

      Thanks for your message. I see what you mean: not giving in to a compulsion is the only way to weaken the obsession. I found this quite similar to nicotine addiction, in the sense that the more you take nicotine, the more you will have the urge in future to take another cigarette. The only way to stop this urge is to stop taking the cigarette.

      Don’t you think that, like nicotine addiction, OCD is something physiological, in the sense that people with OCD have neural networks that link thoughts to fears to compulsions, and that giving in to the compulsions strengthens the link between the thoughts, fear and compulsions, in such a way that the next time you have the thought, your urge to do the compulsion become greater? That’s how I look at the matter.

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