Whenever my children travel, I always make sure to tell them to “have a safe trip.” Before my husband goes to sleep at night, he always makes sure the doors are locked. A basketball player says a specific prayer before each game, and a runner wears her lucky running shoes when she competes. Do any of these behaviors seem abnormal to you? Probably not.
In a recent study, researchers concluded that repetitive behavior, especially ritualistic-like behavior, is a common human (and animal) occurrence. This behavior is thought to have evolved as a means to induce calm and alleviate stress. Rituals provide us with the illusion that we are in control of a situation that is really out of our control.
Hmm, sounds a lot like OCD, doesn’t it? While the researchers acknowledge a behavioral link between “normal” human rituals and OCD, they bring up a very important difference: OCD sufferers continually wrestle with the feeling of incompleteness, never truly convinced that their task has been completed. Doubt always manifests itself.
OCD sufferers, in general, are more rigid in their adherence to rituals than non-sufferers. In this interesting post by Dr. Jonathan Grayson, he tells us, “Consistency is the measure of severity, the more consistent you are, the worse your OCD is.” In other words, the more tied you are to your rituals, the more your OCD is in control of you. For example, if for whatever reason I’m not able to tell my children to “have a safe trip,” I may feel a little uneasy for a minute or two, but I won’t dwell on it. Someone with OCD with this same ritual may become distraught if not able to perform it and may then develop other rituals to “make sure” everything will be okay. These are two very different reactions.
The thoughts and rituals of those with OCD are often no different from those who do not have the disorder. It is the severity that sets them apart. Thoughts become obsessions with lives of their own and rituals become compulsions that overtake the OCD sufferer’s life. It sure would be nice to know exactly how and why this happens, so we can do away with this devastating disorder once and for all.