The Rhyme and Reason of Rituals

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.

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6 Responses to The Rhyme and Reason of Rituals

  1. Very nice post. I see my husband get stuck sometimes like this where his rational mind says it’s fine, but the “other part” says keep obsessing.

  2. Thank you for this post and all of your posts. I enjoy reading them and it helps me better understand what my daughter is going through, or reminds me. It also gives me something to share with others close to us to help them understand.

  3. As someone with OCD, or at least OCD symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, I can really appreciate the need for rituals and the failure of them to fully meet that need. I don’t have as many problems with regular rituals as I do things where I get “stuck.” For example, when avoiding work or just for no apparent reason, I will play solitaire online. But, not like most people play it. I have gone 16 hours straight. I don’t even like the game. My therapist has suggested that it gives me a sense of control. I make up weird rules of my own like having to win a certain number in a row or in a certain way or I’ll have “bad luck.” I zone out while playing, and I think of all sorts of interesting things. Perhaps it takes me out of my everyday world in a quick and easy way and yet also provides me with a bit of that control. Ultimately, it means I don’t get work done on time. I even hurt myself because I have fibro and sitting on a computer that long is very painful. I miss out on more fun things, and I still have the work to do. But, in the moment, once that little “switch” goes in the brain, I’m stuck. I can at times play with no real problem, but not others. Like I said, I don’t even find it fun. It’s only one of the weird things I do. It’s one of the more ridiculous and difficult to understand, but it’s one of them. I know all or nothing thinking is another big problem. Ugh. Daily struggles. Glad to have found this blog

  4. ocdtalk says:

    Thank you so much for sharing….your comment not only reinforces that OCD can be a devastating disorder, but that it also manifests itself in so many different ways.

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