A version of this post first appeared on my blog in 2011:
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 this 2011 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 obsessive-compulsive disorder, doesn’t it? While the researchers acknowledge a behavioral link between “normal” human rituals and OCD, they bring up a very important difference: those with OCD continually wrestle with the feeling of incompleteness, never truly convinced that their task has been completed. Doubt always manifests itself.
In general, people with OCD are more rigid in their adherence to rituals than those without the disorder. 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 might feel a little uneasy for a moment or two, but I am unlikely to dwell on it. Someone with OCD with this same ritual might become distraught if not able to perform it and might 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 can overtake the life of the person with OCD. Researchers are working hard to figure out how and why this happens, and once they do, we will be one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of OCD.