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They Never Work: Why Don't OCD Compulsions Make Me Feel Better?

Updated: Sep 16, 2023


The Quest for Comfort in a World of Uncertainty

Living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) often feels like wrestling with thoughts that just won't let go. To find relief, many turn to rituals known as compulsions. However, beneath the surface, there's a catch – compulsions may offer temporary solace, but they can't truly quell the distress caused by OCD. In this article, we'll dive into why compulsions fall short in easing the uncertainty that OCD thrives upon, all explained with relatable examples.


The Uncertainty Struggle: OCD's Core Challenge

At the heart of OCD lies the difficulty of tolerating uncertainty. The disorder urges individuals to seek certainty through compulsive behaviors. Imagine facing an uncertain situation, like worrying your hands aren't clean. Compulsions step in – you wash your hands repeatedly. The act of washing provides a brief sense of certainty, making you feel clean in that moment. However, the relief is fleeting, as the uncertainty returns, often more intensely.


Example 1: The Vicious Loop of Checking

Picture someone caught in the loop of fearing their front door isn't locked. Each check offers a fleeting sense of certainty. But as time passes, the nagging doubt creeps back in – "Did I really lock it?" Compulsively checking to ease this doubt seems helpful at first, yet it reinforces the idea that only checking can provide peace, trapping you in a cycle.


Example 2: The Illusion of Cleanliness through Washing

Imagine someone compelled to wash their hands repeatedly due to germ fears. Each wash provides momentary illusion of being clean, but uncertainty persists. Like patting down wet clay – it feels better for a moment, but unease remains.


Example 3: Battling the "What Ifs" with Prayer and Ritual

Think of someone plagued by thoughts of harm befalling a loved one. They turn to prayer and religious observance for relief. Praying fervently may temporarily ease anxiety. However, anxiety returns, leading to a cycle of repeated prayers. Rituals offer brief sense of control, but can't erase the uncertainty.



the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) compulsion cycle for checking, germ fear and safety feer

So why don't OCD Compulsions work?

Overcoming the clutches of OCD necessitates embracing uncertainty. When we engage in a compulsion, we're essentially admitting that we can't bear the uncertainty that our OCD triggers, whether it's the fear of falling ill or leaving the door unlocked. Despite their temporary soothing effect, compulsions don't address the root issue – the underlying uncertainty that fuels our distress.


A Different Approach

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), particularly Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), challenges compulsions by encouraging gradual exposure to triggers without giving in to the accompanying rituals. By confronting uncertainty in manageable doses, individuals can learn that it's possible to coexist with discomfort without relying on compulsive behaviors.


If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD and wants to explore effective treatment options, consider reaching out to schedule a consultation.


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1 Comment


Thanks, Dr. Krinsky.

Those examples really clarify the kind of challenges presented by OCD. Your CBT approach sounds really promising.

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